Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

It’s the first day of school. Eric Von Holtum III walks into his kindergarten room carrying his brief case, which contains a copy of his current read, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He and his parents just returned from a two-week vacation to Disney World. Little Johnny, who rode to school with the neighbors because his parents don’t own a car, walks in with tattered clothes and a runny nose all pumped about his families weekend jaunt. On the way home from Grandma’s they stopped at McDonalds and he got to order his own Happy Meal.

Eric attended pre-school and knows his colors, knows the alphabet and he can spell his name. He also reaped social and emotional benefits from the pre-school experience. Johnny was on a waiting list for Pre-K but was one of thousands of Minnesota children who was denied that opportunity because of lack of funding. His impoverished background combined with his lack of access to Pre-K education doesn’t bode well for his chances of academic success. We need to recognize that we can’t close the achievement gap without first closing the “opportunity gap.”

If we are going to break the hellish cycle of poverty, we need to make significant systemic change. One huge step is free universal Pre-K education.

It seems unconscionable that our politicians who tout the value of education on the campaign trail balk at universal Pre-K because it is too costly. We have to decide if the richest nation in the world can afford to educate its people. Should we in Minnesota, with a budget surplus, continue to deny poor children the benefit of early childhood education because it’s too costly? Let me repeat, we will never close the achievement gap until we are willing to close the opportunity gap, and that costs money. But investing in early childhood education now will reap generous rewards down the road.

Stuff Costs Money

There is a simple economic reality we need to deal with. Stuff costs money. When you go to the grocery store, you expect to pay for what you buy. When you buy a car, your part of the bargain is to pay for it. If you go out to dinner, you expect the check at the conclusion of the meal. So it is with roads and bridges and health care and education and police and fire protection and national defense and all of the wonderful services we expect from government. They all cost money. We don’t expect to buy groceries or cars without having to pay for them, yet we seem to believe we can run a country of 312 million people without revenue. How do we expect the State of Minnesota to serve its eight million people without revenue? So we can either have a whole lot of bake sales or we can collect enough revenue to pay for our services, including an educated work force. It’s that simple.

 Let’s Give Hope

In an earlier article we shared the story of Eugene Lange, a self-made millionaire who returned to his elementary alma mater to give the sixth grade commencement address. Realizing that they needed hope more than a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” sermon, he altered his approach and offered to give each student accepted into college a scholarship. What he gave beyond the financial commitment was something that was void in their life until then. He gave them hope.

That leads us to the second part of the equation — free college. A four year old living in poverty is just as bright and talented as his or her more blessed class mates, but they lack any sense of optimism that their future will be any different than their parents. As we arm them with academic and social skills in pre-school, imagine the hope we could give them knowing that when they graduate high school and qualified academically for college, it would be funded. We would spend less time and energy on discipline and other problems, freeing more resources for academic achievement. As we close the opportunity gap, we close the achievement gap. As we close the achievement gap, we greatly reduce the economic disparity. As we reduce the economic disparity, we greatly reduce crime and other societal challenges. Horace Mann reminded us that “Jails and prisons are the complement of schools. So many less you have of the latter, so many more you must have of the former.”

Sell the Fiscal Benefits

Here is a pretty harsh reality that we discussed in previous articles but one that needs to be addressed. The talks we give to our young people about hope for the future and all of the political rhetoric about the importance of education is fluff without the willingness to fund it. We create intelligent and civil dialogue about funding.

To sell the idea of free education, we need to sell its fiscal benefits. Business leaders tell us that one of the biggest deterrents to economic growth is the lack of an educated work force. Letters to the editor and op-ed pieces lament the same. What is missing from all of the articles is a discussion of the economic issues. Remember, stuff costs money, including college education. But if we look at the economic benefits of an educated workforce, including technical courses, free college makes sense. Some states already provide it.

We have literally thousands of bright and talented young people who are qualified and motivated to go to college but they can’t afford it. If we provided free education, we would be astonished at how quickly we would reap a return on our investment. Business would have the qualified workforce that they need to expand, and expanded businesses lead to an expanded economy. The educated person, instead of living in poverty, would be earning $30,000 to $60,000 or more, putting them in a higher tax bracket. The tax revenue that it took to educate that person would be re-generated many times over. With increased income, they would buy cars and homes and go on vacations, expanding our economy at a pleasantly alarming rate.

In the 1800s, many thought that Horace Mann’s idea of free education for all was hare-brained, but look what we have accomplished. I firmly believe that expanding that idea to our four year olds and college students would produce similar results. When the ship rises, we all rise with it.

Dennis Smith Training & Development * PO Box 1611 * St. Cloud, MN 56302
320.250.9741 *


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