Investing in Early Childhood Education

The following guest column was written by Al Rider and first appeared in The News-Enterprise on Sunday, May 22, 2011.  The full, online version is available here:

Early in the last century, a basic elementary education was an accepted level of education for success in adulthood. Later in the 1900s, the necessity of a high school education grew and since that time the jobs requiring a high school diploma have increased and opportunities for those without have decreased.
Finally, a college degree became the calling card for a skilled or professional job. What is next? Where are we moving in education? I would suggest it is time revisit the beginning.

Why is it time to do this now? We are more aware now than ever before of the value of early childhood education. Rigorous research proves that investing in high quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten programs nets short- and long-term returns for taxpayers.

Quality early education results in fewer referrals for remedial and special education, lower rates of teen pregnancy, higher high school graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment, and better earnings and employment rates. An emerging body of research continues to demonstrate the potential of publicly-funded, large-scale pre-k programs as a strategy for school reform and turning around a record of underachievement.

The awakening of the learning capacity of our students at an earlier age is essential to grow a generation of lifelong learners. Today’s 4-year-olds will work in industries that do not even exist today in specific jobs that we cannot even imagine. To develop this workforce, we must create a yearning to learn at the time when their brain development is most responsive to this creation.

Now baby boomers are beginning to retire in large numbers underscoring the country’s urgent need for well-trained and skilled employees. We now know the foundational skills for school and lifetime success are set in the earliest years, but too often we fail to make smart investments early on to ensure the best outcomes. Many older adults are very concerned for future generations.

It is essential that we continue to invest in proven programs that pay dividends to all generations now and in the future.

I encourage our lawmakers to follow the lead of the business leaders across the country. As the largest user of the end product of our education system, they understand that our workforce and education pipelines are one and the same. Businesses require skilled employees now and in the future. They also need the support of communities that attract skilled employees, produce good customers, and spend less tax money on expensive remedial programs.

The priorities our state and federal elected lawmakers set and investments they make now will determine whether children can attain the skills necessary to power the future of our country. It is important for teachers to be educated and trained in early childhood development. A recent study of the University of Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research found that investing $1 to make preschool available to more Kentucky children would result in more than $5 for the Commonwealth. But these outcomes depend on quality teachers. Cutting corners on quality just doesn’t make fiscal sense.

At the federal level, Congress is preparing to rewrite our nation’s major education law, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The ESEA is a unique opportunity for America to invest in an education strategy proven to save taxpayer money and close achievement gaps that benefit all generations: high-quality pre-k.

Nationwide, only 24 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. have access to publicly funded pre-k. The need is clear for a smart federal policy that begins shifting dollars to invest in quality pre-k that would otherwise be spent on grade repetition, welfare payments, and prison. The ESEA should offer states like Kentucky flexible federal incentives that build on upon the existing commitments of governors, state legislators, and school leaders.

It just seems like common sense to improve our education and workforce pipelines by starting school reform efforts with early education. Along with other older adults, business leaders, law enforcement professionals and education leaders, I urge our legislators to embrace the direct connection between strong early education and college and career-readiness.

If ESEA is reauthorized without pre-k, we will continue to see far too many children unprepared to succeed in school and life.

Currently, government spending policy is largely dictated by reacting to the urgent needs in our society and thus our spending continues to increase. What happens if we begin investing money at the beginning to develop children into educated, productive adults who are much less likely to place a drain our state resources.

We have a clear choice: continue spending money on remedial social programs, more jails and prisons or invest in our children. Which do you believe has the greater chance of positive, productive outcomes?


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  1. Wayne Cox says:

    Thanks so much, Mr. Rider, for showing the strong correlation between early childhood education and life-readiness. Because of the social and financial impact on our community, high quality pre-k should be a top priority. I join you in urging policy makers and concerned citizens to take a forward-thinking “investment” approach to government spending and policy-making.

    • Thank you so much for your response Wayne. It will take a big effort to get the change needed in where we view education starting. Your passion and understanding of this issue is evident. I hope you will be part of this effort. Feel free to contact us at North Central Education Foundation anytime you wish to share your thoughts or get involved in educational issues.

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