In fast-growing Texas, businesses aid schools

Where some states see a challenge in immigration and a baby boomlet, companies see tomorrow's workers.

The classrooms are filled with new learning tools, walls are freshly painted, inside and out, and new playground equipment gleams in the late winter sun.

These recent improvements to His Place Day Care Center on the city's heavily Hispanic east side have come despite statewide education cutbacks. Where public funding is failing to support struggling preschools and kindergartens, local branches of companies such as Baker Hughes, ExxonMobil, and IBM are making a much needed entrance in this land of sandboxes and pint-size desks.

It's part of a growing realization by businesses that investment and involvement in early childhood development is crucial to their own success. The flurry of public-private cooperation is especially welcome in states with fast-growing young populations - of which Texas is the leader.

"It's just wonderful," says Hattie Robinson White, the day care's executive director. His Place Day Care Center has received more than $60,000 through an ExxonMobile program and volunteers from Baker Hughes pitched in to help paint the school. "More and more, we need corporate America to step up and say, 'We want to make an investment in the lives of children,' because they are going to be paying on one end or the other. This is their future workforce."

Corporate America's renewed attention to child development is a blessing to cash-strapped states faced with providing services for the largest group of young people in US history. It's especially important to states such as Arizona, California, and Florida, which have some of the fastest growing young populations in the country.

But nowhere is the issue more critical than in Texas which, according to new Census Bureau data, leads the nation in child population growth under the age of 14.

This newest population explosion, fueled by children of immigrants and grandchildren of baby boomers, comes as the nation is also preparing for the onslaught of baby boomer retirees tapping into government benefits.

"That's the great challenge for America, how to handle both these populations at the same time," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. "Education is critical in preparing a workforce that can succeed in a knowledge-based economy, but those voting on such spending are overwhelmingly going to be affluent Anglos over the age of 65."

The challenge, says Dr. Klineberg, will be to find alternate ways to pay for children's education and healthcare. "One answer is going to have to be private-sector involvement."

That has already begun in many cities across Texas, long one of the nation's youngest states with its high birth rates and a large immigrant population. While the legislature continues to cut education spending, businesses and educators are working together to develop their own plans - and are putting the pressure on lawmakers to implement them.

Earlier this month, the Greater Houston Partnership - chaired by energy mogul Rob Mosbacher Jr. - called on the Texas Legislature to convene a special session on school finance reform. It is also recommending increased funding for bilingual education and local transportation, funding of all-day prekindergarten for at-risk children, and restoring funding for programs aimed at dropouts.

Last month, the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice took its first stride into social policy. The institute hosted a gathering of educators, community leaders, and business people who introduced a plan to improve early childhood education. It is calling for $2.4 billion a year for 10 years to set common rates and quality standards for all preschool providers, with parents paying for care based on their household income.

Last year, Texas lawmakers passed a bill aimed at increasing the efficiency of and access to prekindergarten, Head Start, and child-care programs. The goal is to make low-income children more "school ready" by helping parents take full advantage of early childhood services. But so far, the bill is simply a way to study the issue, not fund it. And now is not the time to cut back on education funding, say experts, especially in states with fast-growing young populations.

"We aren't saving money in the long run. If we save money on the front end, we are going to spend much more later on things like welfare and criminal justice," says Kaitlin Graham, executive director of the Texas Early Childhood Education Coalition in Austin. "That's a hard concept for legislators to wrap their heads around."

But, says Ms. Graham, more businesses are getting it. "They are realizing that if we don't start investing in 0- to 5-year-olds, we're going to have a less productive workforce in the future."

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