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Want to reduce crime and poverty? Invest in early childhood education.

President Obama’s call for universal preschool in his State of the Union address underscores a fundamental crisis facing education: massive cuts to budgets that have become a more frequent tactic to shave strained state and federal finances – a strategy that flies in the face of every common sense understanding of what education can do for society.  

Chairman of the Education Workforce Development Committee of Alabama, Bob Power, understands the potential dangers of this technique. He remarks that “if we don’t make this investment [in early childhood education] […] [society’s] going to pay for it later” with a less prepared workforce that stunts economic growth and a society that remains fractured by those who are educated and those who are left behind.

Expanding financial support for early childhood education would produce broad and long-lasting benefits to society that will outweigh the initial costs by giving back to society almost seven times the initial investment: largely from lower crime rates, increased worker productivity, and higher wages from a more educated workforce.

Senator Bob Casey does an excellent job embodying this concept by recently proposing a national agenda that will provide one year of high-quality pre-kindergarten for all children. His proposal is among the first legislative announcements since Obama’s call for universal access to pre-K, and will hopefully help our nation’s political leaders begin discussing substantive proposals.

And they cannot act soon enough.

Gaps in student achievement measured by income are a very real, and over the past few decades more disparities are being noted between students from middle and upper class families and their low-income peers. A Stanford study analyzed the relationship between student test scores and family earnings and found that “the gap in test scores between the higher income and low-income children has grown by about 40 percent […] [and it is now] harder to achieve the American dream.”

Advancing early childhood education presents our nation with the chance to improve equity among student opportunity, but also rapidly enhance our international competitiveness by using every ounce of talent at our disposal. As Next Generation has detailed, while China and India have made rapid and sustained investments in children, the United States has fallen far behind; a trend that threatens our ability to compete on a global scale.

In fact, a recent editorial by CEO’s John E. Pepper and James M. Zimmerman note that the research on the impact of early education is persuasive and, as a business strategy, there is no better deal.

While there are many investments that come with unknowns, here there is very little doubt. Early childhood is the best place to spend precious public dollars that definitively produce the greatest amount of good for society. While gathering the political will is a heavy lift, the impartial evidence surely points back to our children as the best investment.   

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