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Faith in Values: 57,000 Reasons to Restore Early Learning

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

SOURCE: AP/Dylan Lovan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits with young students at the St. Benedict Center for Early Childhood Education in Louisville, Kentucky, Thursday, June 20, 2013.

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This column contains a correction.

About 57,000 children won’t be going back to preschool this September, thanks to deep cuts to Head Start programs triggered by the sequester. Their teachers and aides will be out of a job. Their parents, most of whom are working, will need to find another place for them to go. And their country—the rest of us—will lose 57,000 future citizens who developed at an early age the necessary skills to compete in the global economy and maintain America’s innovative edge.

This looks like a bad deal all around, especially since the $405 million necessary to keep these kids in preschool is a tiny fraction of the $4 billion we give to oil and gas corporations each year through tax breaks.*

In case anyone thinks that taxpayer subsidies for Exxon and BP are a better value for America than investing in early childhood education, here are a few reasons why they are wrong:

  • Early childhood education pays for itself. Studies show that high-quality early learning programs pay a return of $7 for every $1 invested.
  • Kids who attend Head Start have higher literacy rates, better cognitive skills, and fewer behavioral problems than kids who don’t attend these programs.
  • Kids who attend Head Start are less likely to be in special education and more likely to graduate from high school.
  • Head Start programs provide kids with essential dental, nutritional, and medical services so that they are healthy and ready to start school.

Given such advantages—and the fact that Head Start programs currently serve only half of all eligible children—the argument should be: Why aren’t we investing more in early childhood education programs?

President Barack Obama has proposed to do just that. His Preschool for All initiative would expand enrollment in high-quality preschool by building on state-funded programs and expanding their capacity with matched federal dollars. And he is not alone in recognizing the importance of early childhood education.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce—hardly an ally of President Obama—sees investments in early learning as critical for both the business community, which needs high-skilled workers, and a strong economy, since middle-class workers spend money to keep the economy humming. What’s more, red states such as Georgia and Oklahoma have large-scale public preschool programs that benefit their entire states.

Like so many political battles these days, the gap between bipartisan support for preschool programs and cutting 57,000 kids from Head Start defies logic and common sense. But then, the belief that slashing such programs will somehow strengthen our economy makes no sense either. It’s like training for a heavyweight match by starving yourself.

When Congress comes back from recess in September, it will face many daunting tasks, including the need to agree on a spending deal so that the government doesn’t shut down when the new fiscal year begins in October. Many Republicans insist that any spending deal must maintain the sequester cuts, while most Democrats insist on dropping them. Democrats say that the sequester cuts have slowed down our economic recovery. What’s more, they argue, conservatives’ belief that austerity measures heal the economy has been proven spectacularly wrong—just look at countries such as Greece. Besides that, we have already reduced the deficit by more than $2.4 trillion over the past three years.

Members of Congress are slated to work for a grand total of nine days during the month of September. In any other business, that would make them part-time employees, ineligible for health insurance and a host of other benefits that they currently receive. Even so, I would bet that the 57,000 children who are unable to go back to Head Start this month would gladly take nine days of school over none.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

*Correction, September 4, 2013: This column incorrectly stated the total amount of tax breaks that oil and gas corporations receive each year. The correct figure is $4 billion.

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This is part of a regular column: Faith in Values

For more from the same column, click here