Making Change: Preschool and the Economy

Featured Audio

Longfellow preschool classroom: (Hey! Hey, gimme) No, we're gonna share...

It may seem strange to think these Longfellow Elementary preschoolers are preparing for their future by learning how to share and take turns... or for that matter, how to identify colors, numbers, letters, or shapes.

Longfellow preschool classroom: Angelo, what shape do you have? (Moon!)

But some economists and business leaders say laying a strong educational foundation early not only serves kids well as they go through school, it also pays off big when they enter the workforce. Kids can benefit from preschool in several ways, according to research. They're less likely than kids who don't go to preschool to repeat a grade, need special ed, drop out, or get into trouble. And they're more likely to finish high school.

Clive Belfield: Those are all very strongly correlated with adult economic well being. So, children who have pre-K do better in their early adulthood.

In a recent commentary published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, economist Clive Belfield argued that there's a strong economic case for providing universal preschool. Most of the research has looked at how preschool affects disadvantaged kids and kids with special needs. Belfield acknowledges that this research may not apply to all preschoolers. But, he says, even if many children would succeed without preschool (or pre-Kindergarten), making it universally available could yield substantial economic benefits.

Clive Belfield: Let's say we give Pre-K to everybody, and only half benefited. The other half just enjoyed themselves thru Pre-K, and their later life was not affected at all. The numbers still suggest that it's worth investing.

One analysis found that for every dollar that goes to early childhood education, seven dollars come back to students and society in higher lifetime earnings, less money spent on welfare, and the like. According to Belfield, Ohio could provide universal preschool for about $300 million per year - less than 3% of the state's overall education budget. But Ohio seems to be moving in a different direction. Willy Banks III, director of Raintree Academy and Childcare in Cleveland Heights, says many low-income parents who use to use vouchers to send their kids to preschool are no longer eligible for governmental support.

Willy Banks III: The guidelines set for vouchers are very very low. A lot of people don't qualify, so a lot of kids miss out on preschool.

And those parents whose incomes are still low enough for them to get vouchers often can't afford the increased co-payments, Banks says, so enrollment is plummeting across the region. Some preschools are closing their doors, he says. At Raintree, where three-quarters of families use vouchers, enrollment is down from 220 to 53.

Raintree preschool classroom: (Kids talking about monkeys hanging by their tails...)

About a dozen kids are debating monkey behavior, as part of a month-long focus on animals.

Raintree preschool classroom: (... and eating bananas.)

Raintree utilizes a preschool curriculum that gradually introduces kids to numbers, colors, letters, and other concepts. But teacher Felicia Goodson says teaching kids the social skills they'll need to succeed in Kindergarten is equally important.

Felicia Goodson: How to interact with other children, writing their names, and just basically learning how to get along with each other.

Several communities away at Longfellow Elementary, in the Willoughby-Eastlake school district, special education preschool teacher Diane Dittoe agrees kids need to learn how to behave, as much as they need to master their ABC's and their 123's.

Diane Dittoe: We look at self help. Learning to use the bathroom, washing their hands. Some of those things you take for granted, but kids have to be taught how to do that. Sitting in a group. Waiting their turn. Taking turns.

In decades past, all that might have been part of the Kindergarten experience, but Kindergarten no longer eases kids into the K through 12 scholastic marathon. Kids are now expected to arrive ready to run. Longfellow's special ed preschool supervisor Jeanne Cocco says that means following Ohio's Early Content Standards, adopted in 2003 by the state Board of Education. The standards govern preschool instruction in four areas - English language arts, math, social studies and science - and they're designed to to ensure that preschool leads smoothly into Kindergarten and beyond.

Jeanne Cocco: We have to align our program with the state, because this is going to be the seamless approach. We're going from the early content standards to the academic content standards of the school-age program.

Even those who believe universal preschool is a good idea - and not everyone does - say serious questions remain. How will the state ensure that preschools properly educate kids, and don’t just warehouse them? And what will have to be de-funded to pay for it all?

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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