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For Florida economy to prosper, raise the skills of preschoolers today

Tampa Bay businesses may bicker over any number of issues. But they will rally to support almost anything that impedes their ability to be as competitive as possible.

Which brings us to Florida preschoolers.

A fast growing number of states, from Alabama to Oregon, are investing in high-quality preschool education programs with the goal of making sure as many children in their states are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. That's the magic moment, experts say.

Third-graders who are confident readers will likely go on to perform well in school and graduate. But kids still struggling to read by then typically start to fall behind, become vulnerable to dropping out of school and are more likely to become expensive burdens to the state as social welfare candidates — or worse.

Why is this a business column? Because, frankly, Florida stinks at preparing its youngsters to read by the third grade — despite boasting a high rate of enrollment of 4-year-olds in its Voluntary Prekindergarten, or VPK, Education Program.

Keep up that lousy job and guess what? Florida will be stuck with an under-educated workforce ill-prepared for the demanding critical thinking, communication and math skills that the business community wants today but will increasingly insist on tomorrow.

Bob Buesing, 61, a senior attorney at Tampa's Trenam Kemker law firm, describes his "forehead-slapping" moment 13 years ago. As a participant in Leadership Florida, he realized that improving early literacy standards — and catching young children when science says their brains are most rapidly developing — are of critical importance to the business community. He's been deeply involved ever since in programs to better childhood education, including the Business Alliance for Early Learning, a long-term statewide effort backed by the Florida Chamber Foundation, part of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

At a recent national business gathering on raising the early education bar, Buesing heard how Alabama's business community had convinced initially skeptical state legislators to help back a high-quality pre-kindergarten program. The proposed program is designed to meet all 10 of the key quality benchmarks of pre-kindergarten education — from teacher qualifications and small class size to providing meals and parental involvement — prescribed by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

By contrast, Florida's pre-kindergarten program ranks pitifully low — NIEER calls it "abysmal" — meeting only three of those quality benchmarks. The Sunshine State ranks 36th among states in resources spent ($2,238) per child enrolled in its pre-kindergarten program.

Alabama is not the only nearby state to aim high. At the start of the 2013-14 school year, North Carolina, Louisiana and even Mississippi were committed to 10 benchmark early education programs, while nine more states (including Tennessee and Arkansas) endorsed meeting nine of those benchmarks.

"As a business person, I saw our competitors in the Southeast saying this is critical to their long-term future and their ability to compete," Buesing said. "I saw they are leapfrogging us."

That motivated the Tampa attorney. "There's nothing like competitive pressure to get business people focused," he said.

So what is Florida's plan? Buesing answered, "There is no Florida plan."

A legislative effort to start shrinking the quality gap in Florida's pre-kindergarten program was derailed this year when too many unrelated measures were tacked on.

In the Tampa Bay region, though, the failure to plan is about to change. On Tuesday, the United Way Suncoast hosted its first "Early Literacy Initiative" summit in Tampa and invited area business leaders to attend.

Among those in the audience: Bob Dutkowsky, CEO of Clearwater's Tech Data Corp., one of the largest public corporations in the bay area. Dutkowsky is so convinced of the value in raising the Florida bar on early child literacy that his family foundation became one of the 13 founding backers of the United Way's Early Learning Initiative.

The initiative also is supported by PNC Bank, whose foundation is solely focused on improving early childhood education, said PNC regional president Joe Meterchick.

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Casey Coane, a member of a nonprofit group of retired admirals and generals called Mission: Readiness, spoke at Tuesday's summit. He warned that the U.S. military already is finding it hard to recruit young people who can pass basic reading, math and thinking tests. It will only get worse without change, he said.

That's why his group is focusing on preschool programs to raise the bar — to help ensure national security.

What worries military leaders should be no less frightening to economic leaders.

The United Way Suncoast decided to focus on improving early literacy because poor education is often at the core of poverty that can persist across generations.

"We came up with a regional plan and invited the business community to get more involved," said United Way Suncoast marketing executive Deanna Willsey. The youngsters here that the initiative will try to reach are, after all, the region's future workforce.

The United Way plan calls for gathering quality mentors and tutors, building a culture at home so parents read to their children daily and providing child care programs staffed with better trained providers. A United Way report sets a three-year funding goal for the program of $9.4 million with almost a third of that sum raised in the first year.

It's early, and there are lots of moving parts, Willsey acknowledged. But she is excited because she sees businesses becoming less scattershot in their community giving and — like PNC — more focused on where their philanthropy can do the most good.

For Buesing, the good news is he sees a national business momentum to embrace better early childhood literacy and learning. A key part of that national effort is the work done by a business organization of 1,100 executives called ReadyNation.

"This is the seminal issue of our time," former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper, a leader of ReadyNation, said this spring. "There is irrefutable evidence now that a quality preschool component, followed by a good K-12 program, is essential for the workforce of the future."

Buesing is optimistic, too, but concedes this is a long-term effort in a state not known for planning beyond the next political term in office.

"If other states are looking at the same science we are looking at and saying, 'Wow, we have got to start earlier and invest resources to save money in the later years,' then that should get our attention," Buesing said. "And I think it has."

Should we improve the quality gap in pre-kindergarten education in Florida? That's clearly a resounding yes.

And by how much? That remains to be seen.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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