(760) 212-6478 [email protected]

An investment that pays huge dividends

By Catherine Atkin
2:00 a.m. June 12, 2009

At a time when we are all looking for ways to fuel our economy’s recovery, we must not ignore one of the state’s greatest resources, our children. With new research quantifying just how much the achievement gap costs our economy and demonstrating how we can narrow that gap, it is clear that investing in education and child development for our state’s youngest learners is not a choice but an economic imperative.

The San Diego region and the state’s future economic prosperity rest on producing an educated, skilled homegrown workforce. That starts with ensuring our children start school ready to learn and succeed. While California faces an unprecedented fiscal crisis that will require some very difficult choices about programs that affect our neediest children and families, we must not neglect critical investments in our future – our youngest children. If San Diego County and California want to remain economically competitive and continue to attract and grow high-wage, innovation-driven industries, we will need more skilled employees than are currently available.

If we want to compete in the global economy, we must continue to invest in early childhood education programs. A new report by the RAND Corp. makes a powerful case for investing in high-quality preschool for the children who need it most. RAND finds disadvantaged children are more likely to start school without critical social skills that preschool helps develop, such as persistence in finishing tasks, paying attention and eagerness to learn, and without important early reading skills. Lacking this early social and academic foundation, disadvantaged children are also more likely to stay behind throughout their school career, RAND finds. Unfortunately, the kids who need it most are least likely to be in preschool – only about half of low-income children are in preschool, compared to 80 percent of children whose families make more than $100,000, according to RAND.

The persistence of these educational achievement gaps “imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,” according to a new McKinsey & Company study. If the achievement gap between low-income students and others was closed a decade ago, GDP would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher by 2008, McKinsey found.

The good news is that high-quality early learning programs can improve school readiness and generate sustained effects on academic achievement into the middle school years. They also produce long-term gains such as reduced special education use, decreased grade repetition and increased high school graduation rates, according to a RAND review of rigorous evaluations of both small and large-scale programs in several states. A longitudinal study of nearly 1,000 children in the Chicago public schools’ large-scale preschool program, for example, showed children who attended preschool were 44 percent less likely to be placed in special education, 39 percent less likely to repeat a grade and 28 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

Cost-benefit analyses of Chicago and another program, the Perry Preschool Project, which followed participants for more than 40 years, found they return $7 to $16 for every dollar invested. Investments in early learning produce long-term savings on K-12 education, public assistance and the criminal justice system, as well as increased tax revenue.

In California, there is a growing consensus on what constitutes a high-quality program. Through legislation passed last year, our state is developing a rating and improvement system to evaluate quality and provide financial incentives for programs to reach higher levels. This is sorely needed: On-site observations of about 250 classrooms showed only 15 percent of children who could benefit most were in high-quality programs that promote higher-order thinking and language development, RAND found. RAND also provides a road map for how California can most effectively spend its early learning dollars, and its recommendations show that our state is on the right track in providing early education targeted to our neediest children. In the short term, RAND recommends allocating existing resources more efficiently, which California is already doing by consolidating programs and reducing bureaucracy.

As California grapples with a state budget crisis, we also have the opportunity to maximize new funding from the federal level. The state stands to receive more than $500 million of at least $5 billion in the federal stimulus package for early childhood education. Additionally, President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget proposal calls for more than $1 billion for new and existing federal programs supporting early education.

California has long led the nation in generating innovative ideas. We must maximize this opportunity to become a national leader in early childhood education by securing new federal funds and ensuring they are well-spent on a high-quality early learning system, while protecting our child development programs from further state budget cuts. In doing so, we can ensure our next generation is prepared to succeed in school, contribute to a strong economy and build thriving communities.

Atkin is president of Preschool California. 

In the San Diego Union-Tribune on Page B7