Pre-School Education: Will Congress Invest in Our Children and in America’s Future?

Stephen DeAngelis

December 12, 2013

In two previous posts (Educating Our Children: The Earlier the Better and The Importance of Pre-School), I discussed how study after study continues to pile up evidence about the importance of early education. One of the articles I discussed in the first post was written by New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. In that article, he wrote, “[Early education] is one of those rare initiatives that polls well across the spectrum, with support from 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in a recent national survey.” [“Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?” New York Times, 26 October 2013] In spite of such broad support, Professor Austan Goolsbee, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, worries that our children will get short-changed in the looming budget battles. [“Pre-K Education Is a Long-Term Winner,” Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2013] He writes:

“Most of us watching the looming budget showdown do so with a sense of dread. The last one left congressional approval at 9%, the president’s popularity at a new low, and consumer confidence at levels not seen since the 2008 financial crisis. The trouble, of course, is finding common ground on a 10-year budget framework or even on a six-week punt. Hopefully, they will find common ground. If we are committed to evidence, though, there’s one area where we ought to be able to agree: early-childhood education. Investments in pre-kindergarten education have among the highest payoffs of any government policy, and whatever budget agreement emerges should restore the country’s long-standing commitment to early education.”

As you might recall, Congress passed the budget-sequester legislation because its members believed that no one would be stupid enough to allow such across the board cuts to actually take effect. They thought the threat of such cuts would force the two sides to the table to negotiate. We all know that didn’t happen. According to Goolsbee, those budget cuts “knocked as many as 70,000 kids out of [pre-school] programs.” He continues:

“How myopic. It doesn’t save money beyond the narrowest definition of the immediate term. Incarceration, special education, teen pregnancy, low earnings — avoiding these outcomes will actually save money, and early education helps achieve that. Decades of research from many different states and cities, some of it from randomized trials, demonstrate the value of early-childhood education in the short and long term. University of Chicago economist and 2000 Nobel Laureate James Heckman, for instance, has documented the direct returns and spillover benefits of investing in high-quality early education.”

The good news is that “school districts would get some relief from the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration under an agreement announced Tuesday by a bipartisan pair of House and Senate negotiators.” [“Budget Deal Could Offer School Districts Relief from Sequestration,” by Alyson Klein, Education Week, 10 December 2013] The bad news, according to Kris Perry, Executive Director of the First Five Years Fund, which advocates for early childhood education, is that the agreement does “not make room for a big new investment in preschool. The agreement would include language opening the door to further preschool funding, but it doesn’t provide any tangible new resources.” Also remember that there are no guarantees that members of Congress will actually pass any negotiated legislation. Although Goolsbee’s article was published before the deal was announced, I’m sure he is as disappointed as Perry. According to his article, failing to provide new funding for pre-school programs would be foolish and short-sighted. He explains why:

“The longest-term data on early education comes from the 1962-67 Perry Preschool Project study in Ypsilanti, Mich., that randomly assigned kids into an early-education program of 2.5 hours a day with follow-up visits from the teachers and followed the children in the program through the decades and into their 40s. The result? Mr. Heckman and his colleagues have documented that children who attend high-quality preschool programs learn better, behave better, live healthier and earn more for the rest of their lives. They help themselves and help the economy. In the Michigan case, the benefits from the preschool investments were six to seven times their cost, with rates of return between 7% and 10% annually — which, Mr. Heckman notes, exceeds the historical returns of the stock market. The Perry Preschool Project established that early education — in addition to raising educational performance and lowering dropout rates — influences the future social skills and learning capacities of students, which play a large role in employability. It seems the best job-training program for a 25-year-old is a quality preschool program at age 4.”

Goolsbee goes on to note that other studies in other states “document similar effects.” Yet, despite the evidence, additional funding for pre-school programs is likely to be withheld because, as Goolsbee notes, “Quality doesn’t come cheap.” The current great divide in America has been created over spending and trust. While there is general consensus that the government needs to reduce the deficit, there is little agreement about how to do that. Proven programs, like pre-school education, are ignored in the larger deficit reduction debate as short-term thinking trumps longer-term reasoning. All of this, according to The Economist, has made Americans “dangerously angry.” [“Why Americans are so angry,” 7 December 2013] The article continues:

“Robert Putnam of Harvard University, a pioneer in the study of ‘social capital’, argues that Americans’ trust in one another has been declining steadily since the ‘golden’ aftermath of the second world war, when civic activity and a sense of community among neighbours were at a peak. Trust in institutions has risen and fallen over that same post-war period in line with external events, plunging after the Watergate scandal, for instance, and during recessions. Yet something new seems to be happening. Anti-government cynicism is feeding on gulfs in society.”

Pre-school education is likely to get caught up in the anti-government cynicism because it will be seen as just another government program and a costly one at that. Goolsbee notes, “The generally accepted level of spending to achieve excellent early education is $10,000 annually per student, though the long-term benefits far exceed the money spent.” I hope that in the weeks ahead the holiday season will have a tempering effect on politicians on both sides of the aisle. I hope that they step back, look at the facts, and then make the right decision about funding pre-school programs. As Goolsbee observes:

“High-quality preschool reduces high-school dropout rates significantly. It can cut the rates of later special education or repeating a grade by as much as half. It improves many different types of test scores. It also makes children less likely to commit crimes; girls with high-quality pre-K are less likely to become young single mothers. The gains are most noticeable for low-income or at-risk children. … There are already good ideas on the table waiting to be enacted. Last week, in his speech at the Center for American Progress, President Obama reiterated his plan for universal preschool. It would create a partnership with the states to offer preschool for all low- and middle-income 4-year-olds. The federal government would commit $75 billion over the next 10 years; states would receive funding only if they follow the standards proven to produce long-term payoff. On Nov. 12, Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) introduced a bill to directly increase preschool funding to cover the budget-sequester shortfalls.

The challenge will be garnering bi-partisan support. Arguments like those expressed above by Goolsbee sound a lot like welfare in the ears of conservatives and, as The Economist article notes, “Conservatives think Democrats buy votes with welfare.” That kind of thinking has to be overcome. Although the poor may disproportionately gain from pre-school programs, children from all economic classes benefit in both the short and long terms. Society, in general, is the long-term winner when we improve the lives of our citizens. Goolsbee concludes:

“Regardless of whether you agree with these approaches, you prefer different methods, or you insist that every penny of this spending must be offset with cuts elsewhere, we should be able to agree that investing in America’s young children is fundamental to long-term U.S. growth. Other countries — and not just France and Sweden — are taking notice. China has pledged to increase preschool enrollment 50% by 2020. Mexico and India have made similar pledges. The forester’s motto says that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second best time is today. Is it too late to get an arborist into the budget negotiations?”

Pre-school education shouldn’t be a partisan subject. As Kristof reported, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats support early educations programs. What we need are credible education champions in both parties who are willing to work together to help secure the future of this country. Pre-school education is a good place to start.