If you ask a preschool teacher about the benefits of early childhood education, you’ll probably hear how it builds a foundation for reading and math while helping children learn how to take turns, follow directions and get along with others – all of which are important to success in school. As a retired hedge fund partner and a president of a foundation that guides philanthropy to strengthen North Texas communities, we agree completely. Yet we also know there are strong economic benefits as well. We’ll begin with value for taxpayers. Enrolling children in quality preschool can save a tremendous amount of money in the long run because it makes it far more likely they will be prepared for school. That means less money for special education and public costs for students who fall behind, which is important because Fort Worth spends more than $10,400 on every pupil, every year for public school students.
The impact is particularly significant for children from low-income families. Economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman analyzed a study that followed poor children who participated in a Michigan program for decades and found a 7-to-10 percent per year return on investment based on increased school and career achievement and reduced costs in remedial education, health and criminal justice expenditures. Analysis of a Chicago program estimated an even greater return on the investment – $48,000 in benefits to the public per child from a half-day public preschool for at-risk children. At age 20, participants of that program were more likely to have finished high school. They were also less likely to have been held back, or to have needed remedial help, or to have been arrested. The estimated return on investment was $7 for every dollar spent.
These findings are especially important for everyone who cares about education and the economy in Texas. One recent study of the state’s pre-kindergarten program found that participation was associated with increases in math and reading scores in third grade for economically disadvantaged students and those with limited English proficiency. That study also found that children who participated were 13 percent less likely to be assigned to special education by third grade and were 24 percent less likely to be held back. For these reasons and more, Fort Worth’s early learning practitioners are working in conjunction with the National League of Cities to align early childhood programs and elementary education to prepare children for educational success by the time they reach the third grade. On Dec. 4 and 5, Fort Worth hosted practitioners from across Texas for a state-wide summit to make state legislative and executive leaders aware of ways in which they can support the educators’ goals. The good news is that the percentage of four-year-olds served by the state pre-kindergarten program has increased, going from 43 percent in 2003 to 52 percent in 2013. Nationally, Texas ranks among the top 10 states in the number of children who have access to pre-kindergarten. Unfortunately, the program meets only two of the 10 quality standards that have been articulated by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Teachers are not required to have bachelor’s degrees or specialized pre-k training. Currently, the student-teacher ratio for classrooms of 3-year-olds is 15:1, which limits the level of personalized attention for the children. And our programs typically provide schooling for no more than three hours a day, not nearly long enough to build the foundation kids need for school.
Which brings us back to the economic case. First, research shows there are direct connections between the quality of a program and its results, so if we want good results, we need to invest in them. The Community Foundation of North Texas is establishing the T.E.A.C.H. Fort Worth Scholarship program to enable early childhood teachers to take coursework leading to credentials and degrees at local community colleges and to pursue certification. The T.E.A.C.H. scholarship will pay 85 percent of fees incurred, with the balance paid for by the sponsoring center and recipient teacher. In recognition of how much quality care means to our economy, Texas Workforce Solutions will match all contributions two to one. So a donation of $1,000 will add $3,000 to the T.E.A.C.H. scholarship pool for Fort Worth early learning teachers. Second, we don’t have to wait until our kids graduate from high school and college and get good jobs to see the economic benefits. Data shared by the business leader group ReadyNation show that a dollar invested in quality early childhood programs can return $2 in the sales of goods and services. And a study at the Bush School of Government and Public Service determined that for every dollar invested in a full-day, high-quality pre-k program, the state of Texas would reap $3.50 in benefits. That’s a great bottom-line message for everyone who cares about kids and the economy, and it’s a good reason to expand our investment in quality preschool today for long-term benefits in the years to come.
Robert H. Dugger is a retired partner in Tudor Investment Corp. and Nancy E. Jones is president of the Community Foundation of North Texas.