My Turn: Pre-K adds up to a better future for Alaska

Want to improve Alaska’s education system? Boost test scores? Improve graduation rates? Who doesn’t? Here’s an easy way to do it: work with children when their brains are growing the fastest. Early childhood education harnesses the power of growing young minds to produce a wide range of beneficial outcomes. Small investments in the youngest Alaskans will yield big long-term benefits.

Research from multiple studies, some of which followed participants to age 40, shows a host of positive effects stemming from enrollment in a pre-kindergarten (pre-K) program. Not only were children better prepared for school, they were also less likely to require special education services or repeat grades. Those who’d gone to pre-K performed better on standardized tests, had higher IQs, and higher rates of high school graduation than those who had not.

In Alaska, pre-K has been operating for many years through Head Start, which only accommodates about 11% of the children ages 3-4. The state began funding its own small pilot pre-K program in 2009. Participation is strictly voluntary. Six school districts around the state, from Juneau to Yukon Koyukuk, began working with willing youngsters. The programs are half-day.

The report of the first year of operations was released earlier this year. Three different tests were used to evaluate both the districts and the children who were enrolled. Tests were administered in the fall, when the program started, and again in the spring, to measure what changes had occurred. The results were dramatic.

The number of children testing in the top quartile doubled. That’s right. Take the number of kids at the top in the fall and after a year of pre-K that number is doubled. And the improvement is just as pronounced in the bottom quartiles. Half the children testing in the bottom quartile had moved up by the spring. Overall, 72% of the children showed above-expected growth.

Some critics object to the cost of pre-K. But consider this example of the real dollars that we spend due to an inadequate educational foundation. Many young Alaskans entering our university system need remedial courses in order to get them ready to do college level work. University of Alaska system officials estimate that about 24,000 preparatory course credit hours were taken last year at a total cost to the university system estimated at $9,710,400. Alaska school districts and the University of Alaska could save literally millions of dollars each year because pre-K participants are much less likely to require remedial education.

Beyond academic gains associated with pre-K, there are some surprising social benefits. Girls who have attended pre-K have a reduced number of teen pregnancies. Moreover, pre-K students experience better economic outcomes through higher employment rates, higher earnings, and reduced need for public assistance.

Lower rates of crime and delinquency also prevail among those who’ve attended pre-K. Alaska’s own Institute of Social and Economic Research found that no other program it examined reduced the crime rate as much as pre-K. That finding alone should cause opponents of pre-K to rethink their positions given our state’s persistently high crime rates.

Other research shows that the economic benefits don’t just impact the individual attending pre-K. According to the widely cited High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, for every dollar invested in pre-K, the return to taxpayers is up to sevenfold, due to higher employment rates, higher earnings, and lower crime rates. It’s important to start thinking about early childhood education not just as a social issue, but as an economic one, too.

I want to make a statewide voluntary pre-K program a reality in Alaska. While a child’s participation in a pre-K program should only be decided by his or her parents and must never be mandated by the state, all Alaskans should have this important option available for their children. It is not the answer to all of Alaska’s woes, but it alleviates many of them. The research is there, we know it works, and we have the resources to do it.

• French is a state senator, attorney, and small business owner who lives in Anchorage.

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