The following is an excerpt from an NAEYC online author Q&A event with William Gilliam on the book The Pre-K Debates: Current Controversies and Issues. The Q&A took place December 12-16, 2011. To view more highlights from 2011 online Q&As, click here.
At a time when early childhood programs are facing funding cuts, how can teachers help the public understand the long-term economic value of investing in young children?
This may be one of the most important teaching tasks that early childhood educators face. There are many benefits from high-quality early education and child care programs, and the economic reasons are only part of the picture. Although your question addresses the “economic value” of early education, I feel I should also comment on the many “non-economic values” also at stake.
First, investment in high-quality early education is valuable from a social justice perspective. Many of our young children start their formal schooling far behind their peers from more affluent backgrounds. These children also deserve a shot at our Great American Dream. Our society is based on the promise that every person can have a decent chance to succeed in life. Education is the best vehicle of that hope, and early education holds the greatest promise for all our children to make the most of their later educational opportunities.
Second, investment in high-quality early education is valuable from a citizenship-building perspective. One of the primary roles of education is to foster a strong citizenry. Many studies of the effectiveness of high-quality early education have shown the benefits in terms of improved citizenship skills.
Third, investment in high-quality early education is valuable from an altruistic perspective. Do we really need research to prove to us that it is a good idea to feed hungry children, care for the health and well being of medically-vulnerable children, and provide socially enriching and cognitively stimulating environments to children who would be less likely to receive this elsewhere? As a researcher, I certainly value research. But I also believe that there are certain things that we should value and do simply because they are the right thing to do—period.
Getting back to the notion of “economic value,” there are at least three ways to think about this. First, there are clear economic values for the children who attend. From many studies of model programs, such as the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects, as well as broader programs such as the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, we know that every dollar invested in early education yields back many dollars in societal savings from outcomes such as reduced grade retention and special education placement; increased income and property taxes paid as adults; decreased reliance on public assistance; and decreased costs associated with crime, adjudication, and incarceration. This is discussed by Nobel Laureate Economist James Heckman in the first chapter of The Pre-K Debates: Current Controversies and Issues, as well as several other chapters.
Second, there are clear economic values for the working parents of children who attend, as well as for their employers—both large and small businesses. Early education, when offering enough hours of service, plays an important role in providing safe, affordable, and available child care for working families. Child care was seen early as an important ingredient of welfare-to-work reform. Child care makes employment possible and profitable for millions of working families, and the benefits are felt by employers who report fewer worker absences.
Third, there are clear economic values for the many people who work in the larger early care and education enterprise. These include teachers, assistant teachers, directors, consultants, social workers, nurses, speech-language therapists, teacher preparation faculty, cooks, administrative assistants, bus drivers, and many others. These people earn a very modest (too modest) living while performing a massive public good. And they likely spend their wages locally, keeping local businesses thriving and paying sales, income, and property taxes. Sadly, preschool teachers and child care professionals are not even eligible for the federal tax break for K-12 teachers! It is this “third economic benefit” of early education that is often forgotten – but it is a huge one.
So, there you have it—three economic benefits, plus three non-economic ones. The first economic argument is a long-tem argument, built on the fact that intervening early is more successful and less costly than intervening later. The other two economic arguments are immediate. Depending on with whom you are discussing this, you might wish to lead with the arguments that will resonate most with your listener. With so many arguments, there should be at least a few for everyone. I am glad that these children and families have you arguing in their corner.