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Clark: The economic case for early education

Posted by Marcia Dick  May 17, 2012 09:11 AM

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Last week I cohosted a legislative briefing on the importance of early childhood education with Arthur Rolnick of the University of Minnesota’s Human Capital Research Collaborative, a former economist at the Federal Reserve.  Professor Rolnick’s research makes the economic case for early childhood education through new data and a comprehensive 40-year study. 

Professor Rolnick and his colleagues have quantified the returns on investment in early education: boosting labor productivity, increasing tax revenue, and reducing by up to 50 percent costs associated with special education services and crime.  Their essential argument is that if children show up to kindergarten ready-to-learn they will do better in school and, eventually, be better prepared for the workforce and less reliant on social programs.  This benefits our society and our economy.

This research has shown high rates of return for public investment in services for children under the age of 5.  Indeed, the annual rate of return of up to 16 percent is higher than for many traditional economic development efforts, and significantly higher than the average post-WW II annual stock market yield of 5.8 percent.  The best programs, according to the research, are those that start early, focus on at-risk children, effectively engage and support parents, and include access to high-quality programs staffed by educators with advanced degrees.

These savings are significant. The children in these programs are much more likely to graduate from high school, get jobs, and pay taxes. Just as importantly, they are 50 percent less likely to commit a crime.

Earlier this year, as part of the federal “Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge” program, Massachusetts was one of nine states selected to receive a $50 million grant to expand pre-kindergarten education, develop new approaches to early learning, and close the school readiness gap.

A critical part of improving educational outcomes and closing the achievement gap is investing in early literacy. MCAS reading scores show that nearly 40 percent of third graders are reading at a level below proficiency; this trend persists across the state, with the most alarming statistics coming from our lowest income school districts. 

To address this challenge, I have introduced legislation that would establish the Massachusetts Early Reading Council to advise state education officials on early age language and literacy strategies and ensure that our curriculum is language rich, and rigorous, and that our assessment strategies are comprehensive, developmentally appropriate, and used to inform practice.  This bill passed the Joint Committee on Education in March, and I look forward to its eventual passage into law.

We are fortunate to live in a district that values early childhood education and is home to many high-quality programs.   Several of our communities will offer universal, free, full-day kindergarten this fall to ensure that all students have access to a level playing field and a strong start.  This is a very positive step.  By ensuring that every student receives an education that unlocks a child’s full potential, we invest in our own strong future economy.

Katherine Clark represents Malden and Melrose. She can be reached at 617-722-1206 or Katherine.Clark@masenate.gov.

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