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Budget Writers Must Protect Early Childhood Education Investments

In a presentation at Duke University in late-March, Nobel economist and University of Chicago professor, James Heckman concluded that:

The optimal policy towards disadvantaged children is to invest much more than we currently do in the early years of childhood

The reasons are intuitive to any parent, but are backed by compelling data: important cognitive (i.e. reasoning) and non-cognitive skills such as motivation and application are learned early in life as the brain matures. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that at around eight years of age the brain changes and that by this time it is critical that children have acquired basic reasoning and emotional skills essential to later education and development.

Far too often disadvantaged children – those from low-income households – fall behind early and don’t get these essential skills. Policy efforts in adolescence and high school struggle to recover the lost ground. This struggle only further highlights the critical importance of investment in young children, especially those from low-income households.

As legislators consider adjustments to the 2009-2011 North Carolina budget, they would do well to consider the wisdom that Heckman has to offer – the best social scientists have to offer – on how to improve the productivity and wealth of North Carolina. Before considering more tax breaks for corporations or ill-conceived highway projects in the name of economic development, legislators should aim to prioritize spending on early childhood. Spending on early childhood is an investment that offers individual and social returns, including economic returns, of an order that is unlike any other government spending.

We know from data that has followed cohorts of children who received a high quality education versus cohorts who did not receive pre-kindergarten education that disadvantaged children who received a quality pre-kindergarten education are sigificantly less likely to commit a crime, be arrested, to have been unemployed for more than two years or have ever been on welfare by age 40. At age 27 those having that quality pre-K education earn significantly more than those who do not. The returns on one dollar invested in a young child can reach eight dollars by middle-age when investment is targeted at children and families in-need and is literacy-focused.

In short, investing in the education of young children saves money that would be spent later on justice, corrections and welfare payments and boosts future tax receipts and working force productivity. In tough economic times with tight budgets, efficiency and high returns are to be prized. Investing in young and disadvantaged children is as good as economic development gets.

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