OPED: Economic benefits of early education are clear

Early Learning Investment Commission

Every day, we apply cost-benefit analyses to guide our decisions. Is this new cell phone worth the price? Is attending this workshop a good use of my time? When benefits outweigh the costs, the decision is a no-brainer.

Now is the time to apply that equation to early childhood education. It’s a topic we had the pleasure of reviewing earlier this week at the York County Economic Alliance's Economics Club Breakfast. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Milagros Nores of the National Institute for Early Education Research, presented a compelling case for the economic power of investing in high-quality early learning.

A growing body of research and data prove that early childhood education can be a strong investment, yielding measurable returns in improved education, economic, social, and health outcomes. Investments in the quality of the early learning experience pay for themselves long-term and can transform generations.

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For 25 years, we have been steeped in the science of brain development, proving that from birth to age 5, the young brain forms the connections needed for a lifetime of learning and social and emotional functioning. Now, we are coming to understand that enriching environments and high quality in child care and pre-K are the essential building blocks of that foundation.

In other words, quality matters. We get what we pay for. Long-term studies show high yields for investments in quality early childhood education. At the breakfast, Dr. Nores reviewed recent studies which show returns of $5 to $11 for every $1 invested in high quality programs.

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Quality early childhood education delivers benefits that last for a lifetime and ripple throughout society:

  • Children experience increased school readiness and success, decreased special education and grade repetition, improved social and emotional development, decreased risky behavior and better health.
  • Parents enjoy increased employment and earnings.
  • Society pays less for schools, social services, crime, and health care. We see higher workforce productivity, earnings, and economic growth, and less educational, social, and economic inequality.

Quality in early childhood education can also close learning gaps that prevent children from achieving their full potential. These disparities in achievement appear by race, ethnicity, and even between low- and middle-income children and their high-income peers. By the time they reach kindergarten, these children are already far behind the starting line in the race of life, and they might never catch up.

In the cost-benefit analysis of economic impact, closing those learning gaps means we are cultivating the talents these children will one day offer our businesses and communities. If learning gaps linger and potential withers, we have squandered the opportunity to welcome a new generation of leaders, brimming with new ideas, into our workplaces and neighborhoods.

High-quality pre-K can help close the gaps and deliver transformation. When it comes to early learning, we must invest well and wisely. In states such as New Jersey, North Carolina, and West Virginia, strong policies direct public investments toward the elements that constitute high quality, and the results are showing long-term benefits. In New Jersey, higher quality across the board has lifted achievement in fourth- and fifth-grade math, science, and language. It has also resulted in fewer grade retentions, and less need for special education.

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In Pennsylvania, we can point with pride to a long tradition of support for early childhood education. Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed increases in the 2018-19 state budget of $40 million for Pre-K, $27 million for high-quality child care, and $6.5 million to expand evidence-based home visiting programs underscores that commitment. York County is ahead of many counties in Pennsylvania. As ahead as York may be, it still means woefully that only 15 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children have access to high quality, early education. We have a long history of community support from private sector leaders, providers, the United Way of York County, members of the York County legislative delegation, and other elected leaders.

As York County business leaders and members of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission, we can think of no more worthy investment. Now, it’s time to get more from those dollars by turning up the dial on quality. We know what works. Quality rises through emphasis on intentional, artful, and scientifically driven teaching practices. Early childhood settings must be responsive and individualized, with curricula building strong hearts and strong minds and emphasizing rich language interactions. Finally, programs must partner with parents and communities, ensuring that children get enrichment no matter where they are.

Unfortunately, most early childhood education programs, whether public or private, fall short. Every dollar devoted to high quality education delivers a strong return on investment. These investments in quality early learning will fuel our economy and diminish the need for spending on crime and social services. Families thrive, businesses grow, and the economy flourishes, all because we weighed the cost-benefit analysis and determined that high-quality early childhood education is a winner worth backing.

— Submitted by members of the PA Early Learning Investment Commission: Bruce Bartels, Former President, WellSpan Health; Peter Brubaker, President, Hammer Creek Enterprises LLC; Tony Campisi, President/CEO, Glatfelter Insurance Group; Josh Carney, P.E. President, Carney Engineering; Kevin Schreiber, President/CEO, York County Economic Alliance

Mike Smeltzer, President, Advancement Solutions, LLC