Schools pay, society benefits from ECE


How do you market an investment that costs almost twice as much as the losses it’s designed to offset? One way is to wait for someone else to fund it.

The Wilder Foundation released a report last week saying Minnesota’s lack of a comprehensive early-childhood education (ECE) program for the state’s poor and low-income students costs the state K-12 education system $113 million per year in remedial education costs, teacher pay, and school safety expenses. The catch: the ECE program they propose as a solution would cost over three times that.

Richard Chase, a scholar with the Wilder Foundation who helped write the report, said that most of the returns – and costs – are seen at the state level or in society as a whole, in “higher personal incomes and reduced criminal justice costs,” a hard sell when Minnesota’s facing a $5.5 billion deficit.

Benefits go to participants and society
While the study shows that proposed ECE programs cost more than they save the K-12 education system, the financial benefits of ECE to participants and to society are greater than its costs. According to a study published by the Federal Gazette:
“While program participants directly benefited from their increase in after-tax earnings and fringe benefits, these benefits were smaller than those gained by the general public. Based on present value estimates, about 80 percent of the benefits went to the general public (students were less disruptive in class and went on to commit fewer crimes), yielding over a 12 percent internal rate of return for society in general. Compared with other public investments, and even those in the private sector, an ECDP seems like a good buy. …

“The conventional view of economic development typically includes company headquarters, office towers, entertainment centers, and professional sports stadiums and arenas. In this paper, we have argued that in the future any proposed economic development list should have early childhood development at the top. The return on investment from early childhood development is extraordinary, resulting in better working public schools, more educated workers and less crime.”
Rolnick, A., & Grunewald, R. (2003). Early childhood development: Economic development with a high public return. The Region (fedgazzette).

Drawing on numerous scholars’ work, the Wilder report highlights a growing scholarly and policy consensus that quality early childhood education programs are the most important part of a child’s education. Early education, scholars and policy-makers say, is key to laying the foundations for good behavior, literacy, and learning skills; President-Elect Barak Obama pledged $10 billion to early education programs during his campaign.

If the long-term benefits and costs in the lives of children are well-documented, the costs to the education system are not frequently discussed, said Chase. The Wilder report breaks the $113 million costs down like so:

o $42 million in the loss of per-pupil aid to schools when under-prepared students drop out

o $29 million in teacher pay to compensate for difficult working conditions, loss due to teacher absenteeism, and teacher turnover, all caused by children’s behavior problems and low student achievement.

o $24.4 million in special education and grade-repetition costs for learning disabilities and remedial education for unprepared students

o $11 million remedial English-as-a-second-language programs

o $6 million in school safety costs because of students’ disruptive behavior

Averaging the costs of several successful ECE programs, the Wilder report offers a theoretical comprehensive program enrolling all 13,229 three-year-olds in Minnesota next year, who come from poor or low-income families, with a total cost of $377 million. Subtracting the $113 million saved in the K-12 education system, the net cost of their proposal is still $264 million. In the face of Minnesota’s enormous budget deficit, though, Chase thinks that federal money “is the only hope we have for ECE funding.”

Other ECE proponents are far from discouraged, though. Jill Davis, a recently-elected member of the Minneapolis school board who campaigned with a strong emphasis on early education, says she is “extremely excited about President Obama’s dedication of funding” to early education, which would offer funding to states and local school districts to pursue early education strategies.

James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.