Many of the controversies in education funding center on primary and secondary education. Early childhood education often receives tiny allocations that have the feel of an afterthought, something to span the gap until toddlers are ready for “real” school. It’s been no different with the various versions of the biennial budget now being considered at the Statehouse.
Growing appreciation of how the human brain develops and the period of optimal learning in childhood indicates such funding biases are costly in terms of human capital and economic growth. The long-term costs are the reason lawmakers need to give funding for early education the highest priority as they reconcile differences in the budget proposals for the next two years.
There is no question many state lawmakers grasp the importance of early education. Infants and toddlers stimulated regularly in high-quality learning programs are better prepared when they start school, are more engaged and more likely to complete their education. Benefits accrue to society as a whole from higher graduation rates, better economic prospects, greater productivity, less poverty and crime. Researchers such as James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, have found that the return on investment in human capital is highest at the preschool level (an annual rate between 6 percent and 10 percent on the dollar for high-quality programs), overshadowing spending on efforts such as job training and adult literacy.
Unfortunately, come time for state lawmakers to back up priorities with budget allocations, funding for early learning barely registers on the radar.
Gov. John Kasich, commendably, is pushing a plan to coordinate all services across multiple agencies for children from birth to five years, the goal to improve the odds for school success. Even so, his budget included $2 million, out of $62 billion in spending, to increase slots in high-quality preschools. The House proposed $10 million. Against such meager offerings, Peggy Lehner sounded like a certifiable spendthrift. As the Senate began work on the education budget in May, the Republican chair of the Education Committee said she wanted to find $100 million in the budget for early education. In the end, the Senate proposed $30.1 million. Every dollar counts, to be sure.
State officials are projecting a budget surplus of $2 billion this year; about $400 million is uncommitted. A quarter of that surplus would not be too much to ensure Ohio’s children a running start. With all that we know about the return on early childhood investments, the greater priority is first-rate preschools, not a cut in income taxes.