Why America Needs To Boost Investment Into Early Childhood Education

New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter has a big piece up today up on the benefits of preschool education and the United States’ failure to invest in them — with an attendant chart noting that out of a multitude of western nations the U.S. ranks almost last in terms of the share of government spending invested in early childhood education. That ranking came from the Organization for Economic Development, which also found that as a share of its national economy, America devotes less public spending to either childcare or preschool education than virtually any other advanced democracy:

The OECD found the U.S. does considerably better in terms of per child spending on preschool education, but that number is likely skewed by the fact that enrollment in such programs is lowest amongst low-income and disadvantaged children.

Porter notes a study that tracks the benefits of quality educational stimulation in early childhood: it found a sizable difference in the cognitive abilities of 3 year olds with college-educated mothers compared to the 3 year olds of mothers lacking a degree, and the gap was not closed by the time the children reached 18. Another study found that the divergence in math capabilities between rich and poor children was not much changed at age 12 than at age 6.

The circumstances of low-income families harm the future prospects of children in all sorts of ways. Their parents face longer hours and less flexible schedules, preventing involvement in their child’s education. And the children themselves are often forced into the labor market at an early age by their family’s economic needs, diverting their energies from learning.

Meanwhile, early education programs in the United States such as Head Start have demonstrated benefits, though they still struggle under inadequate funding. A recent study of a preschool program in Chicago found that a child received $11 of economic benefits over their lifetime for every initial dollar spent on the program. And a 2009 study concluded that by boosting the chances of an individual being well-educated, preschool programs increase both labor supply and GDP over the long-term. Given a few decades, the spending on such programs could actually pay for themselves.

President Obama laid out a goal in his State of the Union Address to provide every child in America with a robust preschool education, and the Center for American Progress released a proposal in February that would make pre-school education free for children from families making below 200 percent of the poverty line. Preschool expenditures would be matched by federal and state government grants of up to $10,000 per year per child, based on a sliding scale for those above the 200 percent threshold. (HT: Justin Wolfers)