Letter writer: Early childhood funding shouldn’t require economic argument

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Graphic by Lori Deaton

Thanks to the hard work of numerous excellent early childhood development and other nonprofits, public awareness of the importance of high-quality early childhood education seems to be at, if not an all-time peak, a very impressive level. Buncombe County Smart Start, Pisgah Legal Services, Verner Center for Early Learning, the YWCA of Asheville, as well as others in Western North Carolina, are providing high-quality care and advocating for policies to improve the lives of the region’s youngest residents. And we at The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, along with many of our fundholders, are pleased to support them.

New research strengthens the deep evidence base for both the immediate and longer-term positive effects of high-quality early care and education. Research released in November by the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy involved more than 1 million North Carolina public school students born between 1988 and 2000. The study found that North Carolina’s investment in young children, specifically Smart Start and More at Four (now NC Pre-K), “resulted in higher test scores, less grade retention and fewer special education placements through fifth grade.” Moreover, the research shows that the benefits of this investment do not diminish with the passage of time.

In addition, Dr. James Heckman, Nobel Laureate (economics) of the University of Chicago, and his colleagues have released a working paper showing a 13 percent return on investment for dollars spent on early care and education. This is actually an increase from earlier research suggesting a 7-10 percent ROI. Although ROI estimates vary according to the study analyzed, a positive, significant ROI has been established.

The case for investment in early childhood development is settled, really. Now, it becomes a matter of convincing state leaders to make the investment and to make it wisely. That’s where things get more complex, because the North Carolina budgeting process is based on a paradigm of scarcity, i.e., the funding pie is unlikely to grow larger. Legislators rob Peter to pay Paul, and early childhood programs find themselves competing with each other for necessary funds. The result often is too little investment to make any particular program operate as well as it could. Relying on the private sector will not produce the level of funding necessary to fund Smart Start, NC Pre-K, Nurse Family Partnership, Parents as Teachers and the state Child Care Subsidy program, to name just a few, at appropriate levels.

As a result, early childhood advocates are now making the economic case for state investment in early childhood programs. This case is clear: an attractive return on investment, a better educated workforce, lower crime rates and so less demand for building prisons, less grade retention and more. It is disappointing, however, that we have had to elevate the economic case to the prime position. The benefit to children should be paramount: physical development; emotional development; development of the soft skills of cooperation and negotiation; development of the ability to delay gratification, to exercise imagination, to learn empathy; and development of an educated citizenry. If the economic case has to be made, the case is easy to make. But I’m sorry that we have to make it, that our state will not invest sufficiently in our children simply because it’s the right thing to do.

— Philip Belcher
Vice president for programs
The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina
Asheville

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3 thoughts on “Letter writer: Early childhood funding shouldn’t require economic argument

  1. Norbert Bourbaki

    The real problem here is that women who should not be having children are having children. Maybe if we spend a lot of money on those children when they’re little they won’t be as much of a burden to us later on, but they’ll still be a serious burden. And Heckman’s ROI calculation is based on a couple of boutique experiments which probably won’t scale up.

    If we had any sense, we’d try to keep women who can’t raise their children properly from having children.

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