Professional Learning

Why Pre-K Education is Worth the Cost

March 15, 2011

It is no secret that we are in the midst of an economic crisis. The federal deficit is out of control. State budgets are hurting. Cuts must be made. But we have to make these cuts smartly.

So I am deeply discouraged to see that, across the nation -- from New Jersey to Iowa, Georgia to Colorado -- lawmakers are talking about cutting funds for early childhood education. At the federal level, Republicans in the House of Representatives have proposed large reductions in key early learning investments, including Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant.

The recent two-week budget measure which did avert a government shutdown, starts these cuts -- $66 million was cut from Even Start, a grant program that supports local family literacy projects that integrate early childhood education, adult literacy, parenting education, and interactive parent and child literacy activities for low-income families and teen parents.

Evidence for Early Education

These proposed cuts are quite discouraging for most education advocates because of their impact on the academic achievement of young children. But they should also be discouraging for all Americans, given the benefits that preschool programs have for society. Consider just some of the recent evidence on the fiscal impact of early childhood education:

  • A recent evaluation of Chicago Public Schools' federally funded Child Parent Centers (CPCs) found that for every dollar invested in the preschool program, nearly $11 is projected to return to society over participants' lifetimes - the equivalent of an 18 percent annual return. Program participants had significantly higher rates of attendance at 4-year colleges, employment in higher-skilled jobs, earnings and tax revenues, as well as lower rates of felony arrests, special education placement and grade retention.
  • Michigan's Great Start Readiness Program, which supports preschool for at-risk children, has saved the state at least $1 billion over the past 25 years, thanks to outcomes including reduced grade repetition and special education placements, crime and criminal justice, welfare spending, and unemployment benefits, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
  • A study of the famous Perry Preschool Program -- conducted over 40 years -- found that society got back $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program. In addition to educational outcomes, the study found that high quality early education resulted in adults having higher earnings, a higher employment rate and a lower crime rate at age 40.

All this makes it so frustrating to hear about cuts to early childhood programs. Once again, it seems like we are seeing short-term thinking with a long-term impact.

Banding Together

Of course, some policymakers recognize this and are working creatively to ensure students, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, get the benefit of preschool. For example, one district overcame a funding challenge to develop an innovative pre-school program. In 2005, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Mayor Walt Maddox, who had campaigned on the need to get children ready for school so that they would not become a burden on the community later in life, formed the City of Tuscaloosa PreK Initiative.

Various groups within the University of Alabama pledged classroom volunteers, comprehensive health screenings, weekly music lessons and development of a public awareness campaign on the importance of early childhood education (to which local media donated air time). A collaborative pledged to provide free vision screenings. Community members made individual donations. And the city government earmarked taxes for preschool.

As a result, more children are entering kindergarten ready to learn. Participants in the program receive two balanced meals a day, as well as time to socialize and experience the arts. They outperform their peers on early tests in grade school. And the district believes that without the program, both the number of students referred to special education and the number of students retained in the primary grades would increase.

Some in the community are concerned that these results do not justify the investment, but for now, area leaders are holding strong, recognizing the evidence that pre-k programs have a great benefit to their community in the short and long-term.

And others do, too. President Obama recognized it in his recent budget proposal (while I have concerns with some sections of this budget, I think he got this right). Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders did, too, in introducing the Foundations for Success Act (which would establish a grant process in which winners would provide childcare and early education to all children six weeks through kindergarten) in February. I wish more were as far-sighted.

Please share with the Edutopia community your thoughts and ideas on this issue!

Related Resources

The National Preschool Debate Intensifies (article)

STEM in Preschool (group discussion)

Are Practical (and Affordable) Swedish Preschools Better? (article)

High School Child Care (video)

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