Prominent business and economic-policy groups are renewing efforts to put early-childhood education squarely in the national spotlight. Leaders of the business community have been citing early education as a high priority for a decade or more, but some experts say the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 stole the issue’s thunder by focusing policy attention on meeting new mandates for elementary and secondary schools.
Now, in a spate of reports released this school year, such groups are emphasizing a long-standing mix of educational and economic arguments that high-quality preschool and child care improve children’s school performance and ultimately lead to more jobs, fewer prison inmates, and greater tax revenues.
“We have found that the economic benefits of quality early care are particularly powerful arguments,” said Sharen Hausmann, the director of Smart Start Georgia, which works to improve the quality of early child care and education in the state. “Legislators recognize that the children in their community are the future of [the] state and this country.”
A report released in September by the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington-based economic and public-policy organization that represents top corporate executives, suggests that high-quality preschool is directly linked to economic growth.
In fact, the report, “Developmental Education: The Value of High Quality Preschool Investments as Economic Tools,” argues that building strong preschool programs is a far better tactic to boost the economy and create jobs than traditional methods, such as offering tax breaks to major companies to lure them into communities.
“In the big picture, we know that workforce quality is a key component to the economy in every country,” said Arthur Rolnick, the director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, which for years has advocated funding for preschool programs. “If you have a dysfunctional workforce that’s barely literate, the economy will suffer.”
Another report, released last week by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank supported by organized labor, business, and foundation groups, argues that a nationwide commitment to universal preschool would have many substantial economic benefits, particularly for low-income communities. According to the report, “Exceptional Returns,” children who attend preschool, in the long run, have higher verbal, math, and intellectual achievement, higher graduation rates, less involvement in criminal activity, and a better chance of securing good jobs with higher earnings than children who didn’t attend preschool.
‘No Real Research’
But skeptics such as Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst for education for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, say that the potential economic benefits of preschool education are often exaggerated.
“The business community is looking at a situation [now] where people are not prepared for the workplace, and they’re understandably looking for solutions,” said Ms. Kafer. “They’ve stumbled on the latest education cure-all, which is pre-K, but if you look at Head Start, there’s no real research to show that it works. Past studies have shown little long-term impact, and that’s what businesses want.”
Although Ms. Kafer said that preschool programs do benefit some children, she said that there is no definitive research proving that they have a positive impact on economic growth. She added that many of the academic benefits of preschool education—such as cognitive language skills—tend to fade within the first few years of K-12 schooling.
The preschool programs on which such business and economic-policy groups are basing their reports, she said, are small, one-of-a-kind programs that haven’t been replicated on a larger scale.
But Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., countered, “I think that’s a disingenuous argument at best.”
He pointed to several ongoing research projects—such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program—as evidence of the long-term benefits of high-quality preschool.
Some preschool advocates argue that Head Start programs, meanwhile, aren’t a good example of preschool’s potential. They point out that most Head Start teachers are not required to have a college degree, are among the lowest-paid educators in the nation, and often must deal with some of the largest class sizes. In addition, the federal program serves only about 60 percent of the eligible children.
Because of those realities, some business groups are calling for universal preschool rather than targeted programs that serve only youngsters from low-income families.
Still, experts are divided on whether universal preschool is the answer.
Many business groups, such as the Washington-based Business Roundtable, an association of corporate chief executive officers, say that while universal preschool would be nice, it’s just not fiscally realistic.
“We stopped short of calling for publicly funded universal [preschool],” said Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, which has also issued reports on the economic benefits of preschool education. “It’s a question of what the country can afford.”
Meanwhile, some organizations favor a direct approach to tackling the issue.
For instance, the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis has proposed creating a $1.5 billion endowment that would enable a foundation to issue $10,000 preschool scholarships for every low-income child in Minnesota. PNC Bank, one of the nation’s largest financial institutions, has committed $100 million to a 10-year preschool initiative.