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Brain Child: Financing Early Childhood Education

by Tim Eaton, Scripps Howard News Service, December 26, 2003

Tasha Mora grew up amid nightly gunshots, drug deals and filth.

The 24-year-old mother of four says a public investment in her early childhood got her out of her Austin, Texas, ghetto and into a kid-friendly suburb with her husband and children.

Without Head Start, she believes, she'd probably be on public assistance like many of the girls in her old neighborhood.

Mora and her sister, Maggie, grew up with their mother in a $65-a-week efficiency. While their mother worked, the girls went to Head Start, which was administered by Child Inc. of Austin.

"We were exposed to learning really early," Mora said. "I think it just started us young enough to lay that foundation."

She has built her life on that base of knowledge.

She remembers the standardized tests that most students dreaded. She thought they were simple. She later went on to serve on her school's student council. Good grades landed her an internship in high school at Austin's daily newspaper.

She had a baby at the age of 16. It was her only major setback. But she raised the child, who is now a precocious 9-year-old girl named Christina. She did not slip into the pool of teenage mothers that have grown dependent on public assistance. Instead, she spoke to other girls and supported other teen mothers. Now she works as a parent involvement specialist at Head Start.

With perfectly painted make-up, a pressed black suit, thick black hair with reddish highlights that falls on the top of her shoulders, Mora talks, walks and speaks like a Harvard-educated lawyer.

James Strickland, the executive editor of Child Inc., said Mora is a living example of how early childhood learning can serve as the great equalizer. He and other child advocates and researchers say that money spent on young children is a hedge against much larger amounts spent later in life on welfare, government-funded medical care and prison.

The Mora family heads to Christinas performance at Dessau Elementary School, where Christina is a 3rd grader. Tim Zielenbach/Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Children of wealthy parents have always been benefited from comprehensive early learning programs. But poor children need government money to get the same advantages, Strickland said. The federal dollars so far have helped some children, but more money is needed, Strickland said.

Brain researchers, other childcare professionals and even businesses are joining Strickland in calling on policymakers to make strategic investments in early learning. Government dollars are seeping in now, Strickland said, but most education money flows to students in kindergarten-12th grade and to higher education.

Director of the University of North Texas' Child Development Laboratory Carol Hagen said she sees too few dollars spend on early learning.

A dollar spent on preschool children saves $6 or $7 later, she said. Children with strong cognitive, social and emotional foundations like Mora likely will not need expensive services later.

Brains develop at break-neck speed from the day a child is born through the first few years of life, brain research shows. By the time a child is in kindergarten, brain development has slowed down significantly.

Infants and young children's brains are like the roots of plant. Connectors in the young developing brains are constantly reaching out to stimuli. But if they are not nourished, the connectors called synapses wither and die, just like when a root of a plant that reaches beyond the soil.

When the synapses fail to make a connection, that tiny piece of the brain has failed to generate.

Mora's connected synapses are proof that significant government help can help even the poorest children flourish, Strickland said. The official help can also ward off a person's needs for expense intervention in school, including special education classes and modified instruction.

Brain researchers have been trying to preach to anyone that will listen about the importance of early learning. In almost a panicked frenzy, they have tried to convince the public that young brains and futures are being wasted. Something has to be done, he said.

Research backs her view.

The Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and the Abecedarian Study in North Carolina tracked young impoverished children who had the advantage of early development programs and compared them with their peers who did not.

Both studies concluded that early learning leads to better adult lives.

Steven Barnett, a Rutgers University professor and director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, audited the Abecedarian results and said early learning decreased behavior problems and crime and increased productivity and academic achievement.

That translates to more money in the tax base and less money spent on public assistance, he said.

"It's an important strategy for states who want to close the gaps between rich and poor, between cities and suburbs," Barnett said. "We've always felt that business is the number one consumer of the education system," Vice President For Business and Government Relations Mike Petro said. "Kids who don't have the benefit of preschool, especially poor kids, are entering kindergarten at a disadvantage."

A rigorous RAND Corp. review of these and other studies concludes that much remains to be learned about whether investments in early childhood education lead to substantial savings later.

But the review says, "We know that some of these programs, if targeted to families who will benefit most, have generated savings to the government that exceed the costs of the programs."

The Committee for Economic Development, a New York City-based think tank, also has digested the research. The group of chief executives and retired CEOs has joined the chorus of voices arguing for the economic benefits of early learning.

Vice President for Business and Government Relations Mike Petro said his think tank is concerned about the future of the workforce, particularly future workers' ability to understand technology.

"We feel pretty strongly that without this investment, it could hurt and diminish the workforce," he said. "We could be so much better. It is not realizing what potential these young people pose for the greater good of the country."

Barnett said an abundance of poor and undereducated children in an area could harm companies that are trying to keep and attract a high-quality workforce. Barnett also said that educated workers generally make more money, adding more dollars in to tax coffers.

"States that don't have serious support for preschool will start losing out," he said.

The loose coalition of executives, brain researchers and child advocates is trying to convince Washington legislators to spend as much money on early childhood education as is being spent on K-12 education.

But a skittish economy and an expensive war create a tough environment for an idea that has a weak voice and little Beltway influence.

Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., supports early learning because he said it would lead to fewer dropouts, better test scores and more college-bound students.

"There is no question that that's when the greatest learning percentage that a person has in their lifetime occurs," he said. "I just think that it can be so clearly demonstrated that this is where most of the learning takes place. And it is where we ought to be putting our resources."

But he doubts any national plan will come out of Congress. He looks to state lawmakers and governors for action.

Miller, a former Georgia governor, built a free statewide pre-kindergarten program before he moved on to Congress. It remains the only one of its kind 10 years after its inception.

"I think that you are not going to see pre-K anytime soon," he said. "You have to have a tremendous amount of money to have a pre-kindergarten program."

Barnett equated the principle to personal savings.

If you are saving for retirement, he said, don't want to start when you are 60. You want to start early, he said.

"Our research on investments in preschool shows that they have very, very high return rates," Barnett said. "By investing more earlier, we enable kids to get on a success track, rather than a failure track."

But as Miller says, his fellow lawmakers are feeling the pressure of the tight economy.

As group, legislators are not willing to cut into prison-building programs, Strickland said. He added they are just as unwilling to take money from the K-12 budget.

"I don't buy into the either-or premise because we are the richest country in the world and most powerful county in the world," Strickland said. "If we can't figure out how to do it without all the money and all the power in the world, it'll never be done."

When Strickland talks to parents who are faced with the decision to spend money now or later on their children's education, he says now.

"If you do real good job with early childhood development, the child could be able to put themselves through college or get a scholarship," he said.

In Barnett's audit of the Abecedarian study, he found specific dividends of investing in early education:

Teen mothers with children in early development programs are more likely to graduate from high school, receive additional training and eventually earn more money than their peers.

Early childhood development leads to decreased government expenditures on Medicaid and other services a savings ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 per person.

Smoking rates decline from 55 percent for children without early development to 39 percent for children with early development. The economic value of each nonsmoker in medical savings is $161,000 per year of life.

"Program group participants have higher levels of educational attainment at age 21 than the control group," Burnett said. "The higher levels of educational attainment reflect, among other things, higher levels of academic achievement and are assumed to result in high productivity and individual earnings."

Tasha Mora is an example of that. She said her lucky break in early childhood has led to a virtuous cycle: "Your confidence builds, you become better educated. Then you become a better parent."



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