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In the Nation's Interest

Business Champions for the Advancement of Early Childhood Education Spotlight: Tom Nelson, National Gypsum

by CED November 12, 2018

Tom Nelson is a CED Business Champion for the Advancement of Early Childhood Education initiative, which collaborates with business leaders and education experts to increase the quality, accessibility and affordability of early childhood education for all children across the country.

As chairman, president, and CEO of National Gypsum Co., Tom oversees the second-largest gypsum wallboard producer in the United States, with over 40 operating plants, mines, quarries and support facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

In addition to serving as a CED Trustee, Tom is a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Yum! Brands, Inc., and Atrium Health. He is also a member of The Business Council, The Business Roundtable and the Council on Foreign Relations.  In addition, he serves on the Board of Dean’s Advisors at Harvard Business School and is a past-chair of the Policy Advisory Board at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.  In 1992, Nelson was one of 15 people selected nationwide as a White House Fellow where, during his Fellowship, he served as Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Projects and received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service.  Nelson graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in industrial engineering and received his MBA from Harvard Business School.   

Below are some of Tom’s thoughts on the importance of early childhood education.

1. What role should business leaders and the business community have in early education?

It really starts with recognizing that early education is a critical issue for almost every business, though the connection may not always be obvious. Certainly, it’s on the mind of every parent among our associates– especially when you consider that, in North Carolina where National Gypsum is headquartered, 65 percent of children under the age of 5 have either their only parent or both parents in the workforce – a statistic that is about the same in each state. Having a quality Pre-K environment for these kids means less time off from work for their parents, improved employee productivity and greater job satisfaction.

Even more important, overwhelming evidence confirms that quality early education programs help prepare children to perform well in school and succeed in life. We know that we already have a “skills gap” in the U.S., which will only increase as jobs of the future require more postsecondary degrees and training. The evidence establishes that children who participate in high-quality early learning programs have significantly higher scores in math and reading, have much fewer placements in special education, and are much more likely to graduate high school and enroll in higher education.

Ultimately, it’s an economic development issue – early education helps put more capable employees in the workforce and creates more productive citizens who contribute to the local economy rather than burden its resources. So, the business community clearly has a deeply vested interest in raising the importance of high-quality early education.

2. How have early childhood education issues changed over time and how can the business community help solve them?

Over the past several years, I have seen more and more research on the indisputable connection between early education and a community’s economic vitality. Numerous studies have illustrated the importance of ensuring children have achieved basic literacy by the third grade, the point at which experts say children stop learning to read and begin reading to learn. And there is growing data on the value of these efforts, including reports documenting a return of $13 for every $1 invested in expanding access to quality early education programs.

Business leaders can take a number of actions to improve the state of early education. They can encourage their elected officials to allocate the necessary resources to ensure all students, beginning with those most at-risk, are a priority in their communities. They can participate in collaborative efforts – like the North Carolina Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative in my home state – that connects business people with educators and policy-makers to explore solutions to this growing challenge. And they can embrace family-friendly workplace policies that demonstrate to employees their company’s commitment to the importance of early childhood education.

3. Are there any initiatives you or your company are involved in that advance the improvement, quality and accessibility of early education?

I’m proud to be involved with leaders from other Charlotte-area companies in a group called the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council (CELC), which funded a study on expanding access to Pre-K education here in Mecklenburg County. The CELC also played a role in Mecklenburg County funding 33 new Pre-K classrooms that opened this fall and serves an additional 600 children--the first step toward voluntary universal Pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the County.

Through my work with The Business Roundtable, I’ve also had the opportunity to champion expanding access to Pre-K programs at the state level. Right now, only 47 percent of the eligible 4-year-olds in North Carolina are participating in the state’s Pre-K program. That’s not enough, so we’re working hard to urge our General Assembly to increase funding for these programs and adopt other policies – like coordinated data systems that track children’s reading proficiency through third grade – to make headway on this important issue.

CED's spotlights reflect the views of the individual and/or company spotlighted and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of CED.