The budget hearings taking place in Nashville this week make it all too clear that times are tough in Tennessee, and the decisions that state government is being forced to make will be both difficult and painful. Our hope is that these decisions are not disastrous. So far, pre-kindergarten, one of the best reasons to be optimistic about Tennessee’s future, has been spared the budget axe.

This is a glimmer of extremely good news.

If there is one lesson we should draw from more than 40 years of scientific research, it is that high quality early education makes a world of difference for children. This is because the first few years of life are a period of profound brain development. During this period, children learn what they live, and a child whose early years are filled with encouragement, praise, and opportunities to learn, is much more likely to succeed in school and life.

The economic meltdown means that we need to be more careful than ever about where we spend scarce public funds. No wonder we periodically hear grumbling that pre-kindergarten is no more than glorified baby-sitting. This perception isn’t helped by a recent report out of the Comptroller’s office that says that the gains made by children in Pre-Kindergarten fade over the first few years of elementary school.

Looking Below Surface

It would be a mistake to take these findings at face value. The report doesn’t tell us what assessments were used to examine children’s performance in kindergarten, first or second grade.  As a result, we have no way of knowing what in the world the report means by kindergarten readiness or academic success. My phone calls to try to gain more insight into these measures have gone unreturned.

Second, while many states have a shared measure of kindergarten readiness, no such measure is used in Tennessee. Instead, individual districts are left to come up with their own measures of academic achievement for young children, making it impossible to compare curricula, teachers, or settings.

Finally, the best national information that we have on the benefits of pre-kindergarten tell us that it is particularly helpful for low-income children. Yet no children from Memphis City Schools (MCS) were included in the study. This is an astonishing oversight when the largest concentration of low-income and minority children in the state – those most likely to benefit from the program – are in Memphis.

    ROI

    The best national data shows that there are a wealth of benefits for young children and their communities when we invest in pre-kindergarten. Middle and upper income children do better when they reach kindergarten. Much more dramatic improvements are made by lower-income children.

    If we look only at the dollars, pre-kindergarten makes good sense. Evaluations of the financial benefits of pre-kindergarten indicate that these programs generate between $4 and $7 for every dollar invested. Significantly, these returns don’t come right away. Instead, they are seen in higher rates of high school graduation, higher rates of college attendance, lower rates of teen pregnancy, lower rates of reliance on welfare, and lower rates of criminality.

    Is it a good idea to invest in pre-kindergarten? Absolutely.

    Good public decision making requires good data, and the best available data makes it crystal clear: high quality pre-kindergarten is among the very smartest public investments we can make.