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“The Solution to All of Society’s Problems: Preschool”

On Friday, NPR’s Planet Money (available in podcast) featured research by University of Chicago economist James Heckman demonstrating how and why public investments in preschool have so many long-term benefits and such a high return on investment.

The cost to society of courts and crime is lowered. The cost of educating kids who are unruly and undisciplined in schools, that goes down. The benefits that the kid contributes to earnings and society, that goes up. And so on down the line.

The key is not, as many presume, that preschool raises children’s cognitive abilities (it does that, too, but that’s not where the biggest impact is), it’s that it builds and reinforces so-called “soft skills” that are critical to succeeding in the workplace and having healthy inter-personal relationships.  In fact, much recent research is showing that if a child does not develop these soft skills in their early years, they are likely to never develop them.

With all of the evidence demonstrating the substantial long-term benefits and cost-savings of investing in preschool, it would seem that cutting back on such investments would be the last thing that states would want to do.  Yet that’s exactly what many states, including North Carolina, are doing.

As the considerable body of research building on Heckman’s work shows, it’s not just the children who lose spots in preschool programs who will suffer from these short-sighted cuts, we all will in the long run.

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