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An investment worth making
President Obama wants to build on existing successful state programs that provide early childhood education.
Thursday, February 28, 2013
High-quality early childhood education offers a return on investment many times over, particularly among children born into poverty.
You might not know that from the push-back over President Obama’s plan to offer states incentives for expanding early learning programs to reach more low- and moderate-income children. But early learning advocates count many conservative politicians and business people among their number.
So do the critics. Conservatives in and out of Congress point to Head Start’s admittedly uneven results, and fret over the number of other early childhood programs that already exist. Obama is not proposing a new program, though. Rather, he wants to include more children in state programs that work.
Most states, including Virginia, offer public preschool to at-risk 4-year-olds. And many states, including Virginia, encourage private day-care centers to offer high-quality programs for preschoolers through a voluntary rating system. Some states also encourage learning programs for children from birth to age 4.
This patchwork can produce life-altering results. But it doesn’t capture nearly all the at-risk children who could benefit — and the benefits are proven and substantial, to individuals and society.
Critics blanch at the cost of a dramatic expansion. The administration hasn’t put a price tag on the president’s plan, but it’s safe to say it will cost a lot. The head of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University estimated it could be between $3 billion and $20 billion a year.
Skeptics scoff that the double-digit return on investment from small preschool programs is not matched when taken to scale in big school districts. But a 2011 National Institutes of Health analysis of Chicago’s preschool-to-third-grade program found that the economic benefits for participants at age 26 ranged from $4 to almost $11 for every $1 spent. Those in the program the longest yielded the greatest benefit.
Head Start, a federal anti-poverty program that began in 1965, is a target of many policymakers on the right. It will be just one hurdle, but a big one, that the administration must clear in Congress to initiate a plan that has universal access to early education as its goal.
The White House fact sheet says the plan will build on Head Start investments, noting in particular a new Early Head Start partnership to support high-quality child care for infants and toddlers from birth to age 3.
Expanded eligibility for Head Start programs will help more children qualify for preschool. Head Start programs have varied widely in quality across communities, though. The administration has put new accountability standards in place, and lower-performing programs will have to compete with other organizations for federal funding.
Obama’s vision is of a “well-aligned system of early learning for children from birth to age five.” That is the early learning continuum that experts in brain development say children need.
It would be a big investment, with a very favorable rate of return.
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