President Obama has consistently described improving America’s education system as a central component of his strategy to increase long-term economic growth, beginning with a plan for federal early childhood education he calls “Zero to Five.” Proponents of a new, federal role in early childhood education have been quick to set high expectations for the benefits such proposals could offer, including how it would help other government programs.
Last week, House Education Committee Chairman George Miller began his committee’s hearing on the subject by describing the expected rate of return for tax dollars invested in such proposals over a broad range – from $1.25 to $17 for every dollar spent. Ensuring maximum returns depends on the details of the investment, his remarks reminded his colleagues.
Research has supported this assertion, particularly when it comes to measuring the academic benefits of early childhood programs as children reach the upper elementary grades. Most public school children who fall significantly behind their peers by the fourth grade are statistically unlikely to recover and catch up later. This is especially true of poor, black or Hispanic children.
These children are much more likely to begin kindergarten behind other children in reading and math readiness – gaps that persist as they get older, and tend to grow worse. Substantial bodies of research also point to some significant educational benefits of high-quality early childhood programs for poor and minority children.
With the federal government spending a trillion dollars more than it brings in, responsible new spending programs need to maximize benefits for taxpayers. Taxpayer spending for elementary and secondary education in the United States currently totals over 4 percent of GDP. That total rises to over 7 percent when spending for postsecondary education is included.
“I am for those means which will give the greatest good to the greatest number,” proclaimed Abraham Lincoln a month into his Presidency. Any new federal early childhood programs could take major strides in this direction by adhering to a few basic principles:
• Since eighty percent of children in early childhood programs today are in privately-run programs, any new federal funding that negatively impacts these would do more harm than good. Such programs should honor parents’ preferences if the money followed their child to the provider of their choice, including charter schools or private and faith-based programs.
• Substantial research indicates that the greatest return on a federal investment can be achieved by targeting dollars to benefit children from economically disadvantaged households, who are much less likely to have access to high-quality early childhood programs.
• Current federal proposals that would require early childhood teachers to earn certain approved college degrees are arbitrary, and have little research supporting their considerable pricetag.
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