Pre-kindergarten: A Good Start Toward A Better Future Workforce

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Today's children are tomorrow's workforce. Will they possess the skills required to keep our economy strong? Will they be the innovators and entrepreneurs who create jobs? Will they be able to shoulder the burden of supporting the growing number of retirees?

The answer to these questions must be yes. But a well-trained and entrepreneurial workforce won't happen automatically. It will take time.

Building public support for an investment that will not show returns for many years to come has never been easy. However, we have done it before. Fifty years ago, the G.I Bill allowed nearly 8 million veterans an opportunity to get a college degree. In return, the nation got the educated workforce it needed to grow and prosper. Today, we have the chance to make another smart investment in our nation.

We already know that pre-kindergarten is good for kids. Eighty percent of a child's brain growth occurs by age 5, yet public education generally does not begin until kindergarten or first grade. Research shows that children who receive a high-quality pre-kindergarten education do better in school and in life. They are more likely to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn and succeed. They are less likely to be held back or require special education. They stay in school and out of trouble and grow up to be good citizens.

We now have evidence that pre-kindergarten not only benefits children, it's a smart investment. In a study released earlier this month, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago looked at the costs and benefits of pre-kindergarten as a means of increasing worker productivity and growing the economy. The future of the U.S. economy depends on a skilled workforce, and Heckman concluded that investing in pre-kindergarten, especially for poor children who start out behind their peers, is essential to building that workforce.

A separate study of Chicago schoolchildren who received a pre-kindergarten education showed that every dollar invested in early-childhood education yields $17 in return down the road. Better students mean less money spent on remedial education and crime prevention.

Students who graduate from college get better-paying jobs. A college graduate earns 60 percent more than a high school graduate. A worker with a graduate degree makes 100 percent more. Businesses benefit from having a highly skilled workforce.

Three years ago, the Pew Charitable Trusts launched an initiative to promote voluntary access for all children to high-quality pre-kindergarten. To date we have invested more than $38 million to promote early-education research and advocacy in 15 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Despite tight budgets, 15 states increased spending on pre-kindergarten by $205 million last year, giving 60,000 more children a better start.

(Although Pennsylvania does not have state-funded pre-kindergarten, 6 percent of the state's school districts offer preschool education for 4-year-olds. In New Jersey, 25 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state pre-kindergarten.)

With momentum building, we are now turning our attention to building the economic case for pre-kindergarten and getting this information into the policy debate. Governors, law enforcement officials, and school teachers have joined us. And now America's business leaders are getting involved. PNC Bank's "Grow Up Great" program to help prepare youngsters for school is one example.

The next time our elected leaders talk about economic development, tell them that the best investment we can make is in our children's future.

It is our future as well.

Susan Urahn directs the education program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, a national public charity based in Philadelphia.