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When We Think Things are Worth Buying, We Pay For Them

By Sara Mead — February 15, 2013 1 min read

Great piece by Matt Yglesias calling into question the logic and value of early childhood advocates’ “return on investment” rhetoric. As is likely clear from this post, I’ve long been very frustrated with the constant focus on cost-benefit analyses from pre-k advocates and insistence that “pre-k pays for itself.” I think early childhood advocates think they’re being clever by making the economic case in this way: “See, this is such a valuable thing we can’t afford not to do it, and by the way, it will generate so much savings it won’t really cost anything! How can elected officials say no?” It’s like some kind of progressive version of the Laffer Curve.

But I sometimes worry that the emphasis on pre-k’s return on investment actually has the opposite effect: By suggesting that pre-k somehow pays for itself, we’re somehow implying we don’t think the value of pre-k actually justifies asking anyone to make sacrifices to pay for it. In real life, if we want something and think it’s worth buying, we find ways to pay for it--even if that means sacrificing other consumption or taking on additional work. Similarly, if we really think pre-k is worth buying, then we should be willing to pay for it, not trying to convince people it’s somehow free in the long run because it’s such a good investment. The other perverse consequence here is that the emphasis on pre-k “paying for itself” has meant that pre-k advocates by and large haven’t put significant effort into finding real offsets and funding mechanisms that can actually pay for the costs of pre-k in the short term. That’s foolish. Getting pre-k enacted will be a lot easier if the early childhood community can come up with a credible explanation for where the dollars should come from. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, my friends and former colleagues James Kvaal, Michael Dannenberg, and others realized that the federal government could save significant money by changing certain aspects of how it did student higher ed financial aid. They then uses those savings to push for both those changes and other higher education policies they wanted that cost money but could be paid for by those savings. Preschool advocates haven’t done anything like that to actually explain how to pay for pre-k.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.