Nixon's first order of business: early childhood education

Demonstrating where his priorities will lay, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon met with a group of early childhood education specialists shortly after delivering his inaugural address as his first order of business.

Calling it a "smart investment," Nixon said expanding early education programs would help improve academic achievement and opportunities for Missouri children. Reporters were permitted to observe the discussion held around an oval table in the governor's office.

"I couldn't think of a better way to start my term as governor than to talk about ways to give kids a better start at life," Nixon said.

He noted high-quality early childhood education can decrease the number of academic problems for students down the road, but he added many of the state's early childhood education centers have long waiting lists.

Nixon has said the state budget that he presents this month will include new resources for prekindergarten and early childhood education programs.

Chris Nicastro, Missouri Education Commissioner, said she was "delighted" that early childhood education is going to be a top priority for the Nixon administration.

"The research is very clear," she said, adding that early childhood education has been shown to reduce the need for remediation later on in school and improves the dropout rate. High-quality early childhood education also increases a person's life expectancy, and is correlated to success in college, earnings in the workforce and incarceration rates, she said.

"There's a clear link that I find very interesting," she said.

She said she's "very encouraged" Nixon is making early learning a part of his agenda and she said it's an advantage that the Legislature is committed to education.

James Caccamo, who chairs the Coordinating Board for Early Childhood Education, made the case that quality early learning is an economic development issue.

Caccamo, who oversees the operation of Headstart programming in the Kansas City area, said children are "20 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future. Investing in them guarantees a brighter future."

Noting state business leaders worry about hiring competent and capable young people, he said students need to develop problem-solving skills and a passion for learning to be valuable in the workforce.

"If they don't get those skills early on, it's really hard to add them later," Caccamo said.