My Turn: Invest now or pay later

High-quality early care and education are critical to ensure children are ready to learn

Posted: Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"People generally have more feeling for canals and roads than education. However, I hope we can advance them with equal pace." - Thomas Jefferson, 1807.

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No doubt Jefferson would share my dismay if he could read, now 200 years later, House Speaker John Harris' comment against "dumping a lot of money into day care" (Friday's Juneau Empire, regarding the Masonic Temple). Jefferson often faced this type of attitude toward education as he led the movement for public schools in the 1800s.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Alaskans now realize that high-quality early care and education are critical to help families work and to ensure children enter school ready to learn. A recent survey by the McDowell Group found that 87 percent of Alaskans think it is important or very important for the State of Alaska to provide funding support for early learning and child care (Jan. 21 Empire). Yet state funds provide less than 6 percent of the total cost of child care in Alaska.

Investing in the care and education of young children makes good sense from a business and economic perspective. Federal Reserve Bank economists Arthur Rolnick and Rob Grunewald report investments in early childhood education "reap extraordinarily high economic returns." Their cost benefit analysis of three longitudinal studies show returns ranging from $3 to $17 for every dollar invested; between 7 percent and 18 percent annual returns.

Compare the $185 million the State of Alaska "dumps" into the prison system, against the state general fund investment of $13.3 million total for Head Start and child care for the 62,913 children under age 6 in Alaska. Visit www.fightcrime.org to see why police chiefs across the nation agree that increasing funds for high-quality early learning is one of the most effective strategies for reducing crime. Preschoolers that participated in a high-quality Chicago program serving more than 100,000 children showed a 70 percent reduction in violent crimes committed at age 18 compared to a control group.

Parents can no more afford the total cost of high quality early care and learning than they can the total cost of elementary education or college tuition. Yet the McDowell report found that less than one in seven households using child care services receive any financial assistance. With a cost of between $400 and $900 a month per child, about half of the parents surveyed found it difficult to find child care they could afford, and roughly a third were prevented or limited in their ability to work due to lack of adequate child care. (http://seed.alaska.edu/)

Many large employers find that family-friendly practices such as dedicating space for child care facilities leads to reduced absenteeism and turnover while increasing recruitment and productivity. The lack of available child care downtown may prohibit legislators and staff from serving in office. Yet legislators and staff that are also parents may be most in touch with the issues faced by many of their constituents.

Whether or not the state elects to dedicate space for child care when renovating the Masonic Temple, I do find myself in agreement with Rep. Harris, R-Valdez, on one point. We can't afford to waste the potential of our children on low-quality custodial day care. Our state must join the rest of the nation in advancing the quality of early learning programs and support parents as their children's first and most influential teachers.

Initiatives such as tuition scholarships for high-quality programs, development of a quality rating system and salary incentives for teachers with degrees and professional credentials are all highly effective approaches working in many other states. I applaud Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, for sponsoring a presentation for legislators later this month on the economic effect of early childhood education in Alaska, and encourage all legislators to attend.

If Jefferson were alive today, he would no doubt advocate to expand our public support of education to include the early years. By the time children enter school, the foundation for their capacity to learn is already established.

• Joy Lyon serves as executive director of the Association for the Education of Young Children in Southeast Alaska.



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