• ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH: Editorial: More early childhood education is best investment Missouri can make

    January 19, 2013 6:15 am  •  By the Editorial Board

    If you could just do one thing to improve public schools, what would it be?

    We put that question to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last year. He didn’t hesitate.

    “Early childhood education,” he said.

    Unfortunately, too many states, including Missouri, don’t do enough to help prepare children to learn before they enter kindergarten.

    At least 40 states cut funding to early childhood programs last year, Mr. Duncan told us.

    This is a step backward, and it goes against all of the academic evidence on the subject. Study after study has shown that spending money on early childhood education is one of the best investments a parent or a state can make.

    The best-known such study was done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. It focused on early childhood education as an economic development tool. The authors compared investment in early childhood education with other economic development tools. They found a much larger return on investment, about $8 for every $1 invested, than any other form of state spending or tax credit.

    Other studies show improved learning, reduced crime, and savings in future corrections and mental health budgets.

    “Early childhood education is the best investment we can make,” Mr. Duncan said.

    That’s why it’s so heartening that Gov. Jay Nixon announced plans recently to make early childhood education a priority in his second term. Shortly after his inauguration, Mr. Nixon met with education officials, including Kelvin Adams, the superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, to discuss strategies for improving early childhood education in Missouri.

    Over the past few years, the St. Louis district has significantly increased its investment in early childhood education. It’s a winning strategy that Mr. Nixon wants to see applied in more school districts.

    The governor wants to increase funding for pre-school programs such as Head Start, reversing some of the cuts made last year, and help school districts and other pre-kindergarten programs meet a growing need.

    Mr. Nixon and other lawmakers should embrace one of two bills filed by Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, which would make more state funding available for school districts that provide early childhood education. One bill would apply to all children; the other only to those who qualify for free lunch programs. Either would be a step in the right direction. Mr. Keaveny’s bill doesn’t compel children to go to preschool, but it makes it more likely that every school district in the state would operate early childhood education programs.

    The problem is that it’s not cheap. Missouri isn’t even fully funding its schools according to the formula established by lawmakers. Finding money for preschools won’t be easy.

    One place to start would be the Minneapolis Fed study. Think of early childhood education as an economic development investment. Compare it with tax credits and other forms of corporate welfare and see where you get the bigger bang for the buck.

    The evidence shows that money spent now will save the state later. But lawmakers, especially in the age of term limits, struggle with making investments that won’t pay dividends until 10 years after they’ve left office. Besides, 3-year-olds don’t make campaign contributions. Developers do.

    Mr. Nixon and Mr. Keaveny should keep the pressure on. The future of our communities — our safety, our economic vitality, our ability to dream big — depends on providing opportunity to the next generation of learners.