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September 14, 2013 3:11 PM Early childhood education for at-risk kids: a powerful tool to fight economic inequality

By Kathleen Geier

In many ways, we do education backwards in this country. We skimp and shortchange the poor children who need education the most, while at the same we lavish public moneys on those who need it least. Take, for instance, this article about the outrageous practice of taxpayer subsidies for the legacy admits of rich alumni of elite colleges.

In this context, advocacy for educational programs that alleviate, rather than exacerbate, inequality is particularly welcome. That’s why I especially appreciated today’s New York Times’ Opinionator blog, in which economist James Heckman writes a great op-ed about the dramatic impact of early childhood education in the lives of poor children. Heckman, as you may know, is a Nobel Prize winning economist from the University of Chicago. He’s a typical University of Chicago economist in that yes, he’s a free market true believer type. But he’s been studying pre-K programs for poor kids for years, and he supports them for conservative reasons: because they are economically rational. Early childhood education for at-risk kids is one of those (relatively) rare government programs that the free market types like because it produces not just equity, but also efficiency.

Here’s how the early education programs work. Contrary to what you might think, they didn’t necessarily produce lasting gains in I.Q.’s. But they do teach character and cognitive skills of the sort that I.Q. tests don’t measure. As Heckman argues, these skills are crucial to success in life:

The cognitive skills prized by the American educational establishment and measured by achievement tests are only part of what is required for success in life. Character skills are equally important determinants of wages, education, health and many other significant aspects of flourishing lives. Self-control, openness, the ability to engage with others, to plan and to persist — these are the attributes that get people in the door and on the job, and lead to productive lives. Cognitive and character skills work together as dynamic complements; they are inseparable. Skills beget skills. More motivated children learn more. Those who are more informed usually make wiser decisions.

By the time they enter kindergarten, though, most children from disadvantaged backgrounds already lag far behind in those areas, and they never catch up. That is why pre-K for poor kids is one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against economic inequality:

High-quality early childhood programs are great economic and social equalizers — they supplement the family lives of disadvantaged children by teaching consistent parenting and by giving children the mentoring, encouragement and support available to functioning middle-class families. Children in these programs develop foundational skills on par with those of more affluent children and create a stronger family structure for themselves. Caring parents and early stimulation are essential ingredients of successful early childhood environments.

Heckman discusses two of the best-known studies, which show that at-risk children who participated in early education programs had dramatically better life outcomes, including higher educational attainment, more employment, and even better health.

Now, the more Scrooge-like conservatives tend to have a series of stock objections to these programs. One thing they say is that these programs, in Heckman’s words, “cannot be replicated and scaled up.” But actually, as Heckman notes, school districts across the country are doing just that. Even more bogus is the idea that early childhood education costs too much money. Yes, these programs don’t come cheap. But they truly are one of the best public investments we as a society could make. The rate of return is phenomenal:

The economic rate of return from Perry is in the range of 6 percent to 10 percent per year per dollar invested, based on greater productivity and savings in expenditures on remediation, criminal justice and social dependency. This compares favorably to the estimated 6.9 percent annual rate of return of the United States stock market from the end of World War II to the 2008 meltdown. And yes, these estimates account for the costs of raising taxes and any resulting loss of economic activity.

Some complications are worth noting here, which Heckman didn’t get into in the piece. He studied the impact of early childhood education on poor children. If we instituted a pre-K program that was universal and not just for poor kids, it wouldn’t be quite so productive as a social investment, because the kids enrolling in the program would be better off to begin with, so they wouldn’t benefit from it quite as much. In addition, he specifies that “high-quality” programs have these results; cheaper, less intensive programs — which no doubt will be the kind many governments will be tempted to implement — probably would not be as effective. Finally, if early childhood ed programs were instituted, conservatives like Heckman would probably want to muck around with vouchers, school “choice,” and other market nostrums — even though more evidence keeps piling in demonstrating that those programs don’t work.

Finally, early childhood education programs effectively double as child care programs for working families, and working women in particular. Since child care is one of the great unfinished projects of the feminist revolution, this is yet another reason why early childhood education should be strongly supported.

A decade or so ago, I naively believed that early childhood education was one issue which the left and at least a fair portion of the right in this country could agree on. Social justice lefty types would like the equity, corporate bottom-line types would like the efficiency, and we could all hold hands and feel good about ourselves for getting these types of programs passed, right? Wrong.

In the interim, a lot of things happened. For one, the right went completely cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs crazy. Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they despise poor people and think they are worthless losers. They will never do anything to help them and they resolutely refuse to collaborate productively with Democrats on anything at all. So I don’t think we can expect any support from them for these program.

So, okay, maybe nothing will happen nationally on this issue. But surely some cities and blue states might pass something like it, right? Look at Bill De Blasio. He achieved his stunning come-from-behind victory in the NYC Democratic mayoral primary by promising he would fight inequality, and his plan to fund universal pre-K by taxing New Yorkers earning over half a million dollars a year was a big part of that.

Not so fast. Digby caught this jaw-dropping interview with Howard Wolfson. Keep in mind that Wolfson is a pillar of the Democratic establishment:

MT: De Blasio wants to raise taxes on those making more than half a million dollars to pay for pre-K and after-school. Tell me exactly what’s wrong with that.
HW: We’re already the highest-taxed jurisdiction at the high end in the country.2 People who live here are already making a decision that says, “It’s more expensive for me to live here then anywhere else, and I’m willing to pay that price.” What changes that? You can raise the price, and people could decide it’s not worth it anymore. Or it could be because crime goes up or it becomes dirtier. Or both of those things could happen. A combination of things could really have an impact.

Yes, as we see, it’s not just the Republicans who have gone completely cray cray. The one percenters, along with their loyal political fixers like Wolfson, have also completely lost it as well. Enacting early childhood education has programs turned out to be a far heavier lift than I ever dreamed it would be. Even in supposedly liberal New York, it sounds like the one percenters are ready to pitch a hissy fit rather than let the little urchins dine on their crumbs, so to speak.

I wish the (probable) future mayor the best of luck in enacting his universal pre-K program. It sounds like he’s going to need it.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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