In just a month, America votes. Here in Maine, I’ll be looking for candidates smart and bold enough to call for investment in Maine’s future. As a parent, a college instructor and researcher interested in what works — and what does not — when it comes to building healthy communities, here are the 16 words I would love to hear a politician say this year:
“I will fund high-quality early childhood education for every Maine child aged 2 to 4.”
Here is why: Early childhood education is a wise investment that is well worth every penny.
Consider four facts about Head Start, which is probably the best known, and most scrutinized program supporting early childhood development. Compared to other children with similar backgrounds:
— Children who go to Head Start are less likely to repeat a grade or be identified for special education.
— Children who go to Head Start show gains in pre-reading skills.
— Children who go to Head Start — where health screenings are a priority — make general health gains; and program centers have had demonstrated success in reducing childhood obesity, a dangerous risk to long-term personal health.
— Children who go to Head Start are less likely to end up engaging in criminal activities than peers who did not participate in the program.
The benefits of funding early childhood development programs are not limited to the youngsters themselves. We all gain from stronger economic growth, a better-educated workforce and reduced need for costly government services.
The link between educational attainment and income level is well documented.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce, and children who get quality early childhood education end up better-prepared to learn at school, succeed in college and thrive in good jobs. Today’s Head Start children are also tomorrow’s parents, better prepared to help their own offspring succeed.
A 2013 report published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the School of Economics at the University of Maine presents at excellent analysis of the long-term cost effectiveness of investing in quality early childhood programs and presents a model for Maine. Every politician running for office in our state should print one out and read it carefully.
In the long run, investments in high-quality early childhood programs may actually limit the future need for government spending and reduce taxes. Early childhood programs are relatively inexpensive, but the government programs that have to pick up the pieces when children do poorly are very expensive. Child protective services, remedial education programs, welfare systems, police, and prisons — all are very costly indeed.
The 2013 quality preschool report highlights a crucial point: public funding for early childhood education is also a family-friendly work policy. When childcare is available, parents are able to be more fully engaged and productive at work — especially moms.
More work performed by more wage-earners means more families will be financially secure, and fewer families will be in poverty. That means more people paying taxes and fewer who need to seek public assistance. And, while the learning gains that two-, three- and four-year-olds get will only begin to benefit Maine 10 years or so down the line, the benefits of helping more moms and dads work will help our state right away. The Chase Center report explains that a first-rate preschool education for one low-income child can result in approximately $98,000 in increased revenues during the course of that child’s life in Maine.
All the evidence points to the same conclusion: it is time to direct increased funding to Head Start and other high-quality early childhood programs.
Now is no time for half measures. A few years ago, the Republican leadership of Oklahoma decided it was time to fund pre-kindergarten for every child in their state. Last year in New York City, Bill DeBlasio campaigned for mayor on a promise of spreading pre-kindergarten to all, paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy. He won that race handily, and this fall, some 53,000 new pre-kindergarten slots are being opened up in his city. If states and cities so varied can agree, surely we Mainers won’t allow our state to get left behind.
Political candidates, take notice!
To improve Maine’s economy, create jobs, and reduce the size and scope of government spending in the future, the best possible approach is to invest heavily now in our most valuable resource: our children.
Alison Mitchell is a research assistant at the University of Maine Center on Aging. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.