Overshadowed by brawls over immigration and emails, early childhood education might be the least controversial proposal from Hillary Clinton. The vast majority of voters support increased federal funding to make early childhood education more accessible to lower-income families. Yet, aside from a handful of articles, the topic has evaded scrutiny throughout this endless campaign season. Alison Baulos, the executive director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development in Chicago, said she’s surprised by how little attention it’s gotten. Even when the subject pops up in debates and speeches, “there hasn’t been a real focus on it,” Baulos says.
Roughly 16 million children live in poverty in the US. Study after study shows that early interventions can be effective in offsetting impacts later in life from poverty and other social problems. Donald Trump’s child care plan includes tax breaks for working parents and child care spending rebates for lower-income taxpayers. Clinton has outlined a number of related proposals, including:
- Universally accessible preschool for 4-year-olds
- Expanded access to home-based assistance during and after pregnancy
- Scholarships to help student parents afford child care
The effort to assist teenage parents hoping to head back to school could be a win-win, Baulos says. In general, the ability of parents to work and continue their education can produce a mix of personal and broader economic gains. A study conducted at the center showed that every dollar invested in early childhood education produces a 10 percent annual return on investment thanks to greater lifetime income, lower expenditures in healthcare and welfare, and other variables.
In Illinois: Head Start & Preschool for All
Critics of Clinton’s proposal, which she plans to fund through tax credits and subsidies, worry about the government promising more “handouts” the country can’t afford. The federal government spends about $8.6 billion on Head Start programs. In Illinois, Head Start and a program called Preschool for All are already available for low-income pre-school age children and those considered academically at risk. Whether access to preschool would be on a sliding scale isn’t addressed on Clinton’s website. Baulos stressed the importance of underwriting those who can’t pay. As outcomes correspond with the quality and type of program, she believes that programs should also meet certain criteria before receiving government dollars.
Age is another crucial factor in improving outcomes for young people. The earlier the program, the greater the rate of return. Cost-benefit findings of Head Start programs vary, but a cost-benefit analysis of the program concluded that its financial return to taxpayers was greater than their investment in the program.
Regardless, the educational landscape is changing. Kids start school sooner than ever before. The percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in full-day preschool programs in 2013 (68 percent) was 12 percent higher than that of 1990. Still, according to Illinois Action for Children, the state’s mostly part-day programming doesn’t meet the childcare needs of low-income families. To address the gap, more programs are extending their hours or collaborating with childcare services to provide working families full-day childcare with an educational component.
‘Chicago is a Hot Bed for Energy’
The economic side to early childhood intervention is indisputable. Kids from financially disadvantaged households complete fewer years of school and work fewer hours as adults. When implemented successfully, researchers argue, the overall economy benefits from a more skilled workforce with higher earnings. One academic study showed that a full-day, center-based educational program in North Carolina for children who were at high risk for school failure—starting in early infancy and continuing until school entry—had the most lasting benefits on its participants. According to the study, the program “generated long-term improvements in subsequent education, criminal behavior and employment.”
“Chicago is a hot bed for energy in this area,” Baulos says. Early education initiatives are attracting big money donors and gaining momentum in places like Chicago that have the available infrastructure for studying the issue from different angles.
President Obama gave a shout-out to the cause in his 2013 State of the Union address. At the time he was pushing for home visiting programs to connect nurses and social workers with families and additional support for children from birth through age 3. With a Clinton administration, those ideas could gain more traction. Because it’s a top concern of Clinton’s, Baulos says, a Clinton election would likely instigate action on the issue and lead to further research, as well.
Despite recent partisan rancor, early educational intervention may have the unique ability to get backing from both sides. It has support from politicians who want to help working families as well as those who view doing so as good economic policy. In 2016, that is a radical idea worth considering.
(Photo courtesy of HillaryClinton.com)