Childhood education, amenities drive success

Early next month, Indiana’s most important economic development event of the year will be conducted in Muncie.

It is an ideal event for residents, legislators, policymakers and economic development board members who are interested in learning more about one of the more critical elements of modern local economic development — early childhood education.

On June 7, the BY5 group hosts a free, daylong summit featuring a Harvard cognitive scientist, the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and a host of folks who’ve successfully implemented private sector early lear- ning coalitions.

I am convinced by the research evidence that early childhood education programs pay for themselves in lower remediation and education costs, and that it offers real hope in breaking the cycle of poverty in many families. But don’t take it from me; come to the conference and listen to the authors of that research.

It is all the more interesting that this event will be in Muncie this summer. The region is in the process of formally rethinking its economic development strategy, and the board leadership already has signaled a significant shift.

Leaders will be directing their focus away from the terribly disappointing business attraction policies toward policies that develop quality of place and human capital in the region. This is a watershed moment in Indiana for two reasons.

First, the Indiana economy is, in aggregate, performing quite well; however, more than half of Hoosier counties lost population last year. Only 14 of 92 grew faster than the nation as a whole. This is despite an overall state business climate and state fiscal conditions that are literally the envy of the nation.

The state is doing its part in making Indiana successful, but a half century of local economic development policies focused on business attraction have simply failed Hoosier communities, businesses and families.

Today, the only places growing in Indiana turn out to be communities with good schools, safe and clean neighborhoods, and recreational and cultural amenities. Those who placed their faith in shell buildings and tax abatements are in deep trouble. Shifting to a focus on quality of place holds the only hope for broad economic growth.

Second, the endless focus on job attraction has been far more damaging than it seems. For the better part of 50 years, local economic developers, their consultants, their bond attorneys and their lobbyists have told us that prosperity is just one more factory away. They not only lured us into spending tens of billions (yes billions with a “B”) of local dollars on this development, they crowded out much honest discussion about our most pressing problems.

And that brings us back to early learning coalitions. There are no silver bullets for prosperity, and nothing will work in the short run. The hard work of crafting a place where families want to live and can succeed will take fortitude and patience. This is real economic development.

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