Economist Touts Value of Preschool Education

Article excerpt

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

A 34-year-old Minnesota economist with no children of his own may seem a dubious choice for keynote speaker for a presentation by Success By 6, a United Way of Lane County initiative focused on early childhood programs.

But over the past two years, Rob Grunewald has been a familiar face at similar gatherings across the country, thanks to his co-authorship of an influential 2003 paper making the case that an investment in early childhood education yields a high return on public and private dollars.

On Tuesday, Grunewald addressed an overwhelmingly receptive audience of about 150 educators, health care professionals, social service providers, policy-makers and others at a Success By 6 breakfast program, the initiative's first meeting in three years.

Most people in the room probably were already familiar with the educational and social benefits linked to high-quality preschool programs, especially for at-risk children. Most probably were aware of brain research that underscores the critical window of opportunity in children from infancy through age 5.

But Grunewald is part of a growing chorus of economists and business leaders who are convinced that strong early childhood and parent education programs are a sounder investment than just about any other economic development initiative - even though the payoff may be a long time coming.

"In early childhood, the results are a little less tangible" than, say, an office tower that's created 1,000 new jobs, he said. But still, he added, there's ample evidence to suggest that early childhood programs are "clearly the better public buy."

Grunewald cited three studies that tracked low-income children who attended high-quality preschool programs, and another that followed children involved in a New York prenatal/early infancy program with a strong parental education component.

In all of them, the children involved in the programs fared significantly better than nonparticipants on numerous indicators, such as high-school completion, grade retention, childhood emergency room visits, college attendance, number of arrests and length of jail time, time spent on welfare, and amount of earnings in adulthood.

One was the High/Scope Perry Preschool study in Ypsilanti, Mich., which tracked the progress through adulthood of 123 children from low-income black families, approximately half of whom completed a high-quality preschool program and received weekly home visits and half of whom did not. Those who completed the program were significantly less likely to be placed in special education programs, more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be arrested, the study found.

Cost-benefit analyses of all the studies have found that, for each dollar spent on the program, the public return down the road was anywhere from $4 to $17, Grunewald said. …