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Why Early Childhood Education Matters

States are grappling with whether to eliminate preschool, as education dollars shrink. Do we fund early childhood education now, or pay more later?

As education dollars shrink, states are grappling with whether to eliminate preschool. Do we fund early childhood education now, or pay more later?

As school bells rang for the first time this fall, thousands of preschoolers were left on the sidelines because state funding cuts forced their classrooms to close. And the sad fact is that most of these young children left behind by budget cuts will never catch up to their classmates.

Why do early learning programs matter? Advances in brain research show that children are born learning, and that their first years of life impact the success they experience later in school. Early experiences that are nurturing and active actually thicken the cortex of an infant’s brain, creating a brain with more extensive and sophisticated neuron structures that later determine intelligence and behavior. It also means that children who are exposed to more language and more caring interaction with adults have an advantage over their peers that grow up in stressful environments or have unresponsive caregivers.

The first five years are also when children build the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in school. On the first day of kindergarten, teachers expect children to be able to follow directions, start and finish projects, and know when they need to ask for help. Such “soft” skills are just as important as cognitive or “hard” skills—like being able to count, recite the alphabet, and write their names.

If a child can’t follow directions, he or she will have difficulty attending to the task of learning. Young children build these social-emotional skills through responsive relationships with parents and teachers. When children trust their caregivers to respond consistently to their needs, they learn to regulate their emotions and behavior. Strong social-emotional skills are the foundation of lifelong learning, which in future years help students succeed in school and adults hold steady jobs.

While most middle- and upper-income children have nurturing early experiences, children in poverty often live in chaotic environments. Low-income parents may struggle to find a job or pay the bills and consequently don’t have the means or time to create a stimulating learning environment for their young children. This inequality in opportunity leads to the achievement gap that is evident as early as nine months of age (PDF) and continues to inhibit students’ progress throughout elementary school and beyond.

There is no proven strategy to close the achievement gap during the K-12 school years. But high-quality early childhood education programs prevent the achievement gap from forming. Decades of research on programs such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool and Chicago Parent-Child Centers show that high-quality early childhood programs for vulnerable children increase childhood literacy and high school graduation rates, not to mention reducing crime and teenage pregnancy. Disadvantaged children who don’t participate in high-quality early education programs are 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education and 25 percent more likely to drop out of school. They are 60 percent more likely to never attend college, 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime, and 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent.

Leading economists say that early childhood education is a sound public investment, even during a recession. Every dollar spent on early learning programs for at-risk children yields $7 to $9 in future savings on expenditures like special education and the criminal justice system. Early learning programs can also improve America’s competitiveness in a global economy. “The potential return from a focused, high-quality early childhood development program is as high as 16 percent per year,” writes Arthur J. Rolnick, formerly of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. That kind of return is rarely seen in the private sector. The gains come from a more educated workforce that earns higher wages and contributes productively to the economy.

States around the country are grappling with the decision of whether or not to fund preschool as education dollars shrink. Arizona has proposed eliminating its preschool program entirely. California’s lack of a state budget has forced schools to drop some preschool students. In Illinois, where the state can’t afford to pay last year’s bills for preschool programs, school districts are canceling programs or struggling to pay for them with local dollars. States may justify preschool cuts by saying tough choices need to be made in tough economic times, but what they are really doing is creating a lost generation of children who will cost governments far more in expensive remedial education programs and other social interventions in the years to come.

While federal dollars for early education programs, such as Head Start, Early Head Start and home visiting programs, have increased slightly during President Obama’s administration, they still reach only a small percentage of eligible children.

The question elected officials and the public must confront is simple: Do we fund early childhood education now, or pay a lot more later for the costly social problems that result when children are not successful in school?

Diana Mendley Rauner is executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which works to ensure that all American children have quality early childhood experiences during the first five years of life.

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