What if the Decisions You Make Today Saved You $2 Billion by 2030?

ARTICLE | Jan 30, 2013

If you could launch an initiative that would save your community millions of dollars over the next two decades, and save your state up to $2 billion, would you seize the opportunity? Over the past several years, the City of Virginia Beach has taken bold steps to prioritize investment in early childhood education. There is a strong body of evidence from both the private and public sectors that proves investment in the first five years of life has an undeniable impact on the quality of the future workforce and on the economic vitality of a community. At Transforming Local Government’s 2013 National Conference, presenters from Virginia Beach will explore the economic and workforce issues surrounding early care and education and outline steps other local governments can take today that will yield high returns in the future.

Like most places, Virginia Beach did not always equate high-quality early childhood education and economic development. In 1998, Virginia Beach launched Ready to Learn, an early learning initiative focused on improving children’s well-being, safety, and education in the first five years of life. Because Ready to Learn had the healthy development and school readiness of young children as its goals, it made sense to position it within Virginia Beach Public Libraries (VBPL), which was already engaged in a variety of literacy programming and other educational services. Ready to Learn thrived under VBPL’s leadership for the next thirteen years. Assessment data for Virginia Beach kindergarten children during this time demonstrate the tremendous success of the Libraries’ efforts to improve school readiness: In 2003, about 1 in 5 children in Virginia Beach lacked important foundational literacy skills when they entered kindergarten; by 2010, that number had dropped to 1 in 10. (1)

In 2009, Ready to Learn partnered with the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health’s Healthy Families Virginia Beach program, to operate under the shared name of Virginia Beach GrowSmart. This merger enabled the development of a coordinated system of early care and education, coupled with parent education initiatives, especially for at-risk families. Both practitioners and community stakeholders agreed that this was good for children, and good for families. But a few local visionaries saw the bigger picture. If more children entered school ready to learn, the local public schools would be more successful in helping all children maximize their potential. Fewer children would need to repeat grades to make up for lacked skills. There would be less need for costly remediation or special education services. They wondered, what impact would a successful start to kindergarten have on children who might otherwise have encountered failure and discouragement from the very first day of their academic careers? Surely they would struggle less in later grades, have a more positive attitude toward learning, and exhibit fewer problematic behaviors. Better equipped for learning from the very beginning, wouldn’t these students be more likely to graduate from high school, matriculate to institutions of higher learning, and become more skilled, productive employees? The issue of early childhood education as the first step in a larger process of workforce development began to take shape.

Fortunately, our local visionaries were not alone. Researchers and economists around the nation began to publish extensive evidence showing an astounding return on investment for high-quality programs for young children. (2-11) They found that for every dollar spent, there was a return of $7-10. Children who enjoyed high-quality preschool experiences go on to attain higher levels of education, earn higher lifetime wages and pay more in taxes than their peers. They are almost 30% more likely to graduate high school and half as likely to need special education services. They are more likely to hold down steady jobs, own their homes, and having savings accounts. On the other hand, children who do not attend high-quality early education – especially those with other risk factors, such as living in poverty – are far more likely to become teen parents, commit violent crimes, be incarcerated, and rely on public assistance. As noted in an October 2011 report by Voices for Virginia’s Children, “A joint analysis by the Economic Policy Institute and The Commonwealth Institute found that quality early education benefits Virginia to the tune of two billion dollars over 17 years in special education savings, child welfare savings, decreased grade retention, reductions in juvenile crime, reductions in adult crime, increased earnings by parents, and increased tax contributions.” (12) The message was clear: ensuring quality early education for America’s youth was not simply important for individual children and families, for K-12 education systems, or even for local communities. This issue has serious ramifications for our state and national economies.

In Virginia Beach, City leaders got the message. In July 2011, Virginia Beach GrowSmart was transferred from Virginia Beach Public Libraries to the Department of Economic Development, under the department’s Workforce Development program. This bold move underscores the City’s commitment to strategic, long-range thinking. In 2012, the citizen group Envision Virginia Beach 2040 further emphasized this commitment with its call to “increase investment in early childhood education” as one of four recommended bold steps. (13) The Virginia Beach City Council endorsed the group’s report, which has become the guiding vision for our community.

Virginia Beach GrowSmart is focusing on several initiatives aimed at improving the quality of early childhood education in our city and region. An innovative partnership with the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center enables us to offer free, intensive business training and mentoring for several local child care centers and preschools each year. These small businesses are almost exclusively women- and minority-owned, supporting another key economic development initiative. The program is in its fourth year and can boast early success: participating businesses saw an average increase in enrollment of 37% and an average increase in revenues of 29%. Virginia Beach’s presentation at TLG will highlight this program and offer attendees suggestions for establishing a similar partnership in their own cities.

For more information about Virginia Beach GrowSmart, contact Karen Kehoe at: (757) 385-0144 or email: KKehoe@vbgov.com.




1. Virginia Beach City Public Schools PALS (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening) data, 2004-2011.

2. Heckman, J. “Why Early Investment Matters.” Retrieved July 19, 2012 from: http://www.heckmanequation.org/content/resource/why-early-investment-matters

3. Reynolds, A., Temple, J., Robertson, D. and Mann, E. “Age 21 Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Title I Chicago Child-Parent Centers.” In Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from: http://epa.sagepub.com/content/24/4/267.abstract

4. Bartik, Timothy (2011). Investing in Kids. Kalamazoo: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

5. Society for Human Resource Management. “Meeting the Workforce Needs of the Future . . .Means Meeting the Developmental Needs of Young Children Today.” Retrieved February 13, 2012 from: http://www.readynation.org/uploads/20100616_PAESSHRM.web.pdf

6. Institute for a Competitive Workforce. “Why Businesses Should Support Early Childhood Education.” Institute for a Competitive Workforce: 2010. Retrieved February 13, 2012 from: http://www.smartbeginnings.org/Portals/5/PDFs/Research/ICW_EarlyChildhoodReport_2010.pdf

7. Shellenback, K. (2004). “Child Care and Parent Productivity: Making the Business Case.” Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, Department of City and Regional Planning.

8. Constructing Connections. “Building a Quality Workforce.” Retrieved February 13, 2012 from http://www.childaction.org/providers/booklets/docs/Solutions%20for%20Employee%20Child%20Care.pdf

9. Walker, D. (2010). “Getting Down to Business.” Retrieved July 19, 2012 from: http://insidebiz.com/news/getting-down-business

10. Society for Human Resource Management. “Meeting the Workforce Needs of the Future . . .Means Meeting the Developmental Needs of Young Children Today.” Retrieved February 13, 2012 from: http://www.readynation.org/uploads/20100616_PAESSHRM.web.pdf

11. Federal Reserve: Smart Beginnings website. Smart Beginnings, South Hampton Roads. (2011). “Did You Know?” information page. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from: http://www.smartbeginningsshr.org/content/did-you-know.html

12. Voices for Virginia’s Children. “Building Our Future: The State of Virginia’s Early Childhood System.” Retrieved February 13, 2012 from: http://www.vakids.org/pubs/ECE/Building%20Our%20Future%20Oct%202011.pdf

13. Envision VB 2040 Committee Report (2012). Retrieved July 19, 2012 from: http://www.vbgov.com/government/departments/sga/envision%202040/6.6.2012EnvisionVirginiaBeach2040FinalReport.pdf

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