Sunday night, the Legislature passed a budget that would give more than half of the state’s children the opportunity to go to preschool. It’s a great step forward, except for this: Gov. Jerry Brown has a history of using his line-item veto to undo early childhood education appropriations. Brown argues that he’s acting in the interest of fiscal prudence, but from an economic standpoint, undermining early childhood education is indefensible.
Here’s the thing: The benefits of early childhood education are in fact widely known, and the results are staggering. The brains of very young children are constantly creating a framework for thinking and feeling, and, as such, constructing a strong foundation early on doesn’t just equip kids to better acquire knowledge and skills; it also allows them to better manage their emotions.
Children who graduate from high-quality preschool programs do significantly better over the course of their lives in a whole range of areas than children who do not. Preschool graduates are dramatically less likely to become involved in violent crime as adults; they perform better in school throughout their academic lives; they are more likely to graduate high school; and they typically make more money than their preschool-free peers. They’re also more likely to be psychologically and physically healthy, in large part because they’re better able to follow the counsel of medical practitioners.
These outcomes translate plainly into dollars and cents: It costs a lot of money to house and feed a prisoner or provide treatment for a noncompliant medical patient. By contrast, a healthy, functional adult is likely to contribute to his or her local economy and help it grow.
Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has been running the numbers on the costs and benefits of early childhood education for decades (using data sets from the United States and abroad), following the effects of preschool on children into adulthood from as far back as the 1960s. Heckman estimates that, on average, the return on investment for every dollar spent on early childhood education is between 7% and 10%.
For all these reasons, support for early childhood education is remarkably bipartisan, even in these bitterly partisan times. President Obama has come out in support of universal preschool, but there are actually more Republican governors who have embraced and implemented early childhood education programs than Democratic governors. Importantly, the majority of Californians support universal preschool too.
In short, providing access to early childhood education is not just something that California can afford to do; it is something that California can’t afford not to do.
Unfortunately, even with the clear socioeconomic benefits and strong public support, there is still one major political obstacle to making wide access to early childhood education a reality: In the immortal words of David Simon, “Kids don’t vote.” It is therefore important that adults speak out strongly on kids’ behalf, and the representatives of the people of California have done their part in that. It is now imperative that the governor not veto the progress they’ve made.