Quality early education pays out big for everyone

While the focus of education policy in Minnesota has been on K-12 and higher education, preschool education has received scant attention, and most of it has only been paid to Head Start, a fledgling organization. Minnesota should invest in quality preschool education because children and the taxpayers will both see a return.

When Head Start was created it was designed to prepare our nation’s disadvantaged children for school. Many students at that time entered elementary school unable to write their own names or count. It was argued that if a student could not count, he or she would have difficulty being successful in the years ahead. This argument – that if a student starts disadvantaged, the problem will only be magnified as he or she progress through school – has great merit.

First grade assumes you learned the things you were taught in kindergarten. If you are unprepared for kindergarten, you will almost certainly fall behind by first grade, and so on all the way through high school.

The cost of not treating the ailment at its root increases as time passes. It is obviously simpler to teach a student the alphabet and how to count than it is to teach the student how to do algebra and write papers, in addition to teaching him or her counting and the alphabet.

Yet the focus of policy-makers has been and continues to be on higher education and K-12. Certainly, we must ensure these are institutions of quality, but that would be much easier if we addressed the problem earlier than later.

A teacher might start at $25,000 to $30,000 per year at an elementary school, and a professor at $80,000, but a preschool teacher will make roughly $15,000 to $20,000 per year. What good will the professor be if the student is incapable of learning the material presented?

The most efficient use of public dollars would be an investment in early childhood education. It leads to higher earnings and higher tax revenues and decreased costs as a result of lower crime rates and less need for social services. Why do we not see these results Head Start is supposed to obtain?

The answer lies in Head Start’s structure. The program, according to a brief written by Brookings Institution scholars, is underfunded and poorly structured. Few programs seek to involve parents, or most importantly, few are high-quality, intensive programs.

An article in the March Fedgazette, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has suggested a $1.5 billion fund be created to generate interest to pay for a high-quality preschool program for Minnesota’s poorest children.

Similar programs have shown that a real (after inflation) return of 12 percent – almost twice the 80-year average return of the stock market – can be generated. These benefits flow to the children involved in the program, to the state and also to the nonparticipants as they experience reduced crime and budgetary pressure (read: reduced need for high taxes).

By making a smart investment in our future we could secure a smaller government that achieves social justice.

Frank Jaskulke is a political science senior. Send comments to [email protected]