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Votes

Column: Invest in the Young

There is no program or service for which public dollars can be invested that will have a greater return than those invested in the care and education of young children. People who work in early childhood and day care programs have known intuitively and anecdotally for a long time that children in their programs were much more likely to be successful by a number of different measures than were children who did not have access to their programs. Now, however, there are many longitudinal studies that provide empirical evidence that there is an exponential payback from programs aimed at young children. Children who have early learning experiences in quality preschool programs are much more likely to be successful in school and much less likely to be in trouble with the law or to be on public assistance programs.

The return on public investment in preschool education is not immediate; it accrues over time as the young person becomes a teenager then an adult. Just as one of the secrets to financial investments is to leave your money in place for long-term returns, policy makers must recognize that the returns for funding quality day care and preschool education programs are not realized for decades or more. As Arthur Rolnick and Robert Gruenewald of the Minnesota Federal Reserve Board have said, "Early childhood development programs are rarely portrayed as economic development initiatives. They should be at the top of economic development investment lists for state and local government." (http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/ofc/docs/workforce_study_2006.pdf)

Unfortunately the budgeting process in the public sector does not work favorably for programs with long-term payback. In a time of recession or sluggish recovery, there is an understandable reluctance to spend money without an obvious and clear benefit. Saving dollars in future projections is not helpful to public officials who must make ends meet when there is not enough money to go around. Recent innovations in early childhood education are often the first to be cut because there is no immediate feedback about their successes and there are no alumni associations to lobby on their behalf. Those most in need may be the least likely to speak up in the community and before legislative bodies. Obviously the children cannot do it, but too many times their parents lack the knowledge and skills to do so as well.

Fortunately many faith communities have taken up the challenge and operate day care and preschool programs as part of their missions or social justice activities. These same institutions are important voices on behalf of the needs of children as are nonprofits like Voices for Virginia Children (http://vakids.org/) and Every Child Matters (http://www.everychildmatters.org/index.php) that advocate on behalf of children for anti-poverty, feeding and educational programs. Devotion to Children (http://www.devotiontochildren.org/) provides scholarships to needy families for day care services.

At a time when food stamp programs are being reduced and educational dollars are becoming scarce, it is important that legislators see and understand the long-term benefits of investing in our children.