A new report published by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth provides more evidence to the robust body of research that demonstrates the economic power of early childhood investments. The report finds that public investment in voluntary, high quality universal prekindergarten education that is available to all 3 and 4 year old children in the United States would support broadly shared goals of generating faster and more widely shared economic growth. It does so by improving children’s developmental achievements in the early years and educational and employment attainment in the out years.
The quality of the programming matters to achieving the greatest economic returns however. The authors point to the standards that must be considered, not just in terms of the child’s experience, but inclusive of having the physical space to deliver a conducive learning environment to supporting the professional development and adequate compensation of the early childhood workforce. Specifically, features of high-quality programming identified in the report are: low child-to-teacher ratios, small class sizes, highly paid, well-qualified teachers and staff and instruction that is supportive and stimulating alongside services that meet not just the cognitive but the emotional, nutrition and health needs of children as well.
For North Carolina the results would be an estimated $8.7 billion in economic benefits and a return on investment of more than $7 for every $1 invested in the effort. But as the report points out, it is critical to move beyond just budgetary impacts–and quantifiable returns–of early childhood investment to consider the value of delivering a high quality of life for every child and securing a competitive position for the state in the future. It is these benefits, often difficult to monetize, that can have a catalytic impact on a state’s economic trajectory.
This new research, with specifics for how states can lead in implementing universal voluntary pre-K programs, should prompt deeper discussion in North Carolina. In the current budget, the state continues to underinvest in prekindergarten in North Carolina providing fewer slots for 4 year old children than were served before the Great Recession started. Growing the economy equitably demands an accessible pre-K program in North Carolina. State leaders would be smart to invest today to reap the greatest benefits in the future.