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Early Childhood Education: Upfront Investment, Lifetime Gain

June 29, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

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The path to Minnesota's prosperity starts with early childhood education.  Unfortunately, funding for programs that ready our children for K-12 education and beyond has been inadequate and inconsistent.

The benefits of education for children from birth to kindergarten are well-documented by decades-long studies that show these programs help children prepare for their school careers and keep pace with their peers. This early investment pays long-term dividends in helping lower the drop-out rate and close the achievement gap, which leads to greater college and technical school attendance, better post-graduation jobs and less reliance on the welfare, legal, penal and health systems.

The effectiveness of early childhood education is clear, yet our inability to properly fund the programs that comprise educating children in their early years does not speak well of Minnesota.

Early Childhood and Family Education, one of Minnesota's main school readiness programs that helps more than 126,000 children and 145,000 parents, saw its funding remain unadjusted for inflation since 2003. In some years, per-pupil funding actually dropped.  

When accounted for inflation, the state has lowered its share of funding for the federal Head Start program by seven percent since 2004. Minnesota's school readiness programs, which serve more than 32,000 children, saw a 19 percent inflation-adjusted funding decrease in recent years.

Properly funding early childhood education should not be a controversial decision.  Multiple long-term research projects have proven its effectiveness in helping children achieve higher academic goals and improve basic life skills.  The first major research on the subject, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study in Ypsilanti, Mich., observed children living in poverty from age three to 40. The study found those who received early childhood education surpassed those who didn't in academic achievement, adult employment rates and earnings, and had half as many lifetime arrests and criminal convictions.

In fiscal year 2000 dollars, the study's cost-benefit analysis showed an economic return of $244,812 per participant on an investment of $15,166 per participant - $16.14 per dollar invested. Of that return, 80 percent accrued to the general public and 20 percent went to each participant in the form of increased lifetime earnings.  Of the public return, 88 percent came from crime savings, and 1 percent to 7 percent came from education savings, increased taxes due to higher lifetime earnings, and welfare service savings.

Another study, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, examined 28 children between 1972 and 1977, giving one group of preschool children more adult attention while the other group received regular childcare. The study found that reading and math scores increased for the program children throughout their school years. Those who received the enhanced preschool treatment were almost three times as likely to attend a four-year college or university and more likely to be engaged in skilled jobs.

In 1985, the Chicago Longitudinal Study followed 989 low-income children who had been in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers program and 550 who had not. Those who attended the preschool program did significantly better in educational performance and social behavior with lower rates of grade retention and special education placement, followed by an increased rate of high school completion and lower rates of school dropout and juvenile arrests. Analysis of the program's costs and benefits indicated that, in fixed FY 2000 dollars, the program cost $6,956 per child and yielded benefits of $49,564 per participant.

Two experts at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve say it is a mistake not to view early childhood development programs as economic development initiatives. Regional Economic Analyst Rob Grunewald and recently retired Senior Vice President and Director of Research Arthur J. Rolnick noted in the study "Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return," that "investment in human capital breeds economic success not only for those being educated, but also for the overall economy... Prior to 1983, the wages of a worker with an undergraduate degree exceeded a worker with a high school degree by roughly 40 percent. Currently, that difference is close to 60 percent."

They argue that public investments such as company headquarters, office towers, entertainment centers, and professional sports stadiums and arenas don't result in the economic return that early childhood development investment offers. The return from early childhood development result in better public schools, more educated workers and less crime.

Even in the face of overpowering research that shows positive results, Minnesota does not properly, consistently or adequately fund early childhood education, as noted above.

Through better funding, Minnesota can improve and expand access to early childhood programs, so that more children are prepared for school.  According to a yearly survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Education, kindergarten teachers say only 52 percent of incoming students demonstrate proficient knowledge, skills, and behavior.

The question isn't whether these services are needed. They clearly are. We must ask: Why is Minnesota compromising its future prosperity by refusing to properly invest in early childhood education?  If Minnesota children consistently start behind at Kindergarten, it undermines the state's long history of K-16 investment that has propelled us above our prairie competitors.  The path to a strong, vibrant, nimble future for Minnesota's economy starts on rubber-tiled floors with miniature plastic chairs and trained educators delivering researched-based lessons that advance cognitive development, not in front of grandma or a neighbor's television.

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  • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. says:

    July 19, 2011 at 10:29 am

    We live in an age of urgency, and the urgent often displaces the important long-term goals.  Young children don’t vote and require the advocacy on their behalf by adults.  We know what is required for the children at the lower half of the school Socio-Economic scale to be successful:  summer school for 2-3 years to prevent summer slide; All-day everyday kindergarten for those who need it; Special training in integrating brain stimulation activities into the Physical education and classroom curricula; breakfast and lunch with healthy foods for subsidized F/Rprice meals; parent training on understanding the brain stimulation school programs; English-language learning that is immediately effective and useful; monitoring performance through data-collection procedures and useful analysis; looking at the high performance results in some districts and making local comparisons to make local results transparent/visible.
    Make local results available and visible compared to standard milestones and local performance.  Train the teachers and administrators for high-performance early childhood brain development.