Why it's a good economic bet to invest in early childhood

early childhood class
Teacher Kristie Niebeling hands out snacks to children during an Early Childhood Family Education program in Waconia in 2011.
Craig Lassig | AP 2011

How do you get the biggest bang for the buck if your goal is a more robust economy? Offer tax breaks for business expansions? Subsidize new factory construction? Lure a business from some other state? Some experts say the best way to invest for prosperity is to fund early childhood education.

During a recent two-day conference on innovation in education hosted by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, several early childhood development experts made the case for spending money on the early years.

"This is your current workforce because as you build more early ed programs, you're going to be hiring more teachers, etc. And it's your future workforce," said Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "The best public investment we can make."

Fifteen years ago, when Rolnick was director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, he co-authored a landmark study of the economic return on early childhood education. The analysis found investments in early childhood development programs deliver a high rate of economic return for participants and for society as a whole &mdash as much as 18 percent each year from age 5 to the early 60s.

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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has pushed for investment in early childhood education. He's made free all-day kindergarten available around the state and asked for over $100 million in preschool programs for 4-year-olds in public schools.

But that's too late, according to Mary Brainerd, former president and CEO for Minnesota-based HealthPartners.

"If we wait until age three, we're actually waiting too long," said Brainerd. "Which is why this earlier part of the program is so important. And that can be delivered a lot of different ways."

Legislative audits have found that Minnesota's early learning programs are "complex and fragmented".

"We have more programs than we ever did," said Hue Nguyen, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education. "And no one was really taking the time to assess the entire landscape. We have great momentum, but we do need to take a step back and take a look at the entire landscape as a whole."

There has been a lot of controversy over Dayton's universal 4-year-old preschool plan. Rolnick is among those who criticize the plan.

"This is happening in New York City," Rolnick said. "They went universal-four and the evidence that I have so far is it's mostly turning into a white middle-class program. Because the most at-risk parents aren't taking advantage of it. My concern is they're not going to close any achievement gap. What they're missing is they're missing the brain development research. They're missing the importance of engaging the parent. They're missing starting at the beginning. They're missing that this is as much about health as it is about education."

But Nguyen argued for the importance of using public schools as the means to provide early childhood education.

"I agree with parent choice," Nguyen said, "And sometimes it's public schools because of all of the other programming that public schools offer."

Nguyen points out that public schools provide special education services, free transportation and access to free lunch and breakfast.

Brainerd also advocated for parent choice, but raised concerns about the quality and availability of programs.

"I want to see solutions that connect with parents, that start earlier, that make sure that people get the services they need for their families from those earliest days and months of life," Brainerd said. "And if that comes with universal pre-K — I believe that parents need choice — and when I say universal, I mean available to all — not only in a public school."

Use the audio player above to hear the full segment.