Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Early Childhood Education Isn't A Dollar-For-Dollar Return On Investment

    Early education advocates say states like Indiana who don’t fund preschool programs can’t afford not to invest in younger students, but those benefits may be overstated, writes Sara Mead:

    There are real — and significant — taxpayer and government savings from pre-k, but the really flashy high-value savings come from benefits far down the road, such as reduced crime and prison costs, and are also hard to capture to pay for pre-k. And when early childhood advocates cite such diffuse and distant benefits to claim that the ‘value of investing in school readiness for just one child at risk of academic failure in Detroit, Michigan, is … about $100,000,’ I worry that the perception such claims are oversold may actually increase skepticism about the value of pre-k investments, rather than building support.

    The latest numbers from the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation look at students in Michigan, where researchers predicted a $39,000 potential lifetime savings for each at-risk child enrolled in a pre-kindergarten program statewide with an even higher return on investment in inner city Detroit.

    We’ve reported Indiana could see a 10 percent return on its investment if it diverted more dollars to preschool, though legislators argue the state’s tapped out after fully funding all-day kindergarten for the first time. (Students who don’t start school until 5 are already behind, teachers say.)

    Estimates on how much a state-run preschool program would cost Hoosiers vary, but Mead argues that early education shouldn’t be pinned on how much the state might save down the line if it doesn’t have to lock up as many offenders. She instead suggests looking at the immediate savings to the school system — about $2,374 per child, calculated in reduced special education and grade retention costs, and about $1,000 more per kid in Detroit.

    “Moreover, because cost savings accrue to the K-12 public education system in a relatively short timeframe from when children finish pre-k, it is truly possible to think about mechanisms that might allow for the recapture of some of these savings to offset pre-k costs,” Mead writes.

    Michigan spends about $4,400 per child on early education and reaches about 18 percent of 4-year-olds. Indiana doesn’t have a state-funded preschool program.


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