Pull Preschool Back from Cliff

December 21, 2012 | Chicago Sun-Times |  Link to article

If Congress fails to pass legislation to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff," many families will lose access to the important early childhood education programs that prepare children for success in school and life.

Nearly 4,000 vulnerable children in Illinois who participate in federally funded early childhood programs, and roughly 100,000 nationwide, would be left without this crucial support.

Proven early childhood programs are exactly where we, as a country, should be investing more, not less. Not only do they directly benefit those children and their families who participate, they benefit all of us by helping reduce our national debt and strengthen our economy.

Participants in quality early childhood programs are America's next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They experience stronger academic gains and better social and emotional development, yielding a lifetime of positive results for the economy and society.

Nobel Prize winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman has shown that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programs returns 7 to 10 percent - per child, per year - due to increased productivity, healthy behaviors and reduced social costs. In fact, participants in good early learning programs are 33 percent more likely to be employed and earn on average $5,500 more per year than their counterparts.

Early childhood education from birth to age 5 is one of the few ways to prevent costly problems before they arise. According to a study announced by the National Institutes of Health, every dollar invested in a high-quality early childhood program generates four to 11 dollars of economic benefits over a child's lifetime. It is a bargain investment whose short-term costs are easily offset by immediate and long-term benefits.

In Illinois alone, almost 240,000 children under age 6 - nearly 25 percent - live in poverty, according to the Center on Law and Social Policy. By the time many children begin school, they already face an achievement gap that can set the stage for a lifetime of academic and work-related struggles. Although many teachers, schools and even employers do everything they can, the struggle to close the gap and put students on a path to success continues.

Companies and business groups in our state have made major commitments to birth to 5 education - such as Boeing's support of the Erikson Institute and the Commercial Club of Chicago's early learning initiatives via Metropolis Strategies. They recognize that we must have a work force development strategy in place for every child that is born, and we cannot wait until age 4 or 5 to begin preparing the work force of tomorrow.

Investing in quality early childhood education as part of a grand fiscal bargain makes sense regardless of where you live, work or sit. At a time when Washington is seeking solutions to the fiscal cliff, this remains one of the smartest possible approaches to help reduce the debt in a balanced way and strengthen the economy.

We need to start right now and build on the investments already made in the youngest generation to create a stronger economy and future work force.

Dick Durbin is Illinois' senior senator and the assistant senate majority leader. J.B. Pritzker is a Chicago entrepreneur and philanthropist.

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