OP-ED: Why we should be investing in early childhood education during a budget crisis

Rep. Chris Tuck

Everyone is talking about numbers this session. Alaska’s budget deficit is nearly $3.5 billion. The Republican-led majority threatens to cut an additional $1 billion from state government spending.  Over $3 million is slated to be cut from early childhood education, which would decimate effective programs like Parents as Teachers, the Imagination Library, and pre-k in Alaska.

Here are some more numbers – Alaska’s current prison population is growing by about 3 percent per year. This means the state will soon need to invest about $300 million in a new facility to house the growing number of inmates and add at least $50 million to an operating budget we already can’t afford.

Alaska currently has a modest pre-k program. If we implemented universal pre-k, it would cost about $6,700 per student per year. The average cost of housing an inmate in prison in Alaska is a whopping $57,670 per year, or $158 per day! The Department of Corrections costs the state over $300 million and houses about 5,000 inmates per year. In contrast, universal pre-k could serve 10,000 Alaskan children for $70 million.

High-risk youth who don’t participate in early education programs are 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime. In addition, they are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a pregnant teen, and 60 percent more likely not to go to college.

Still wanting more numbers?  It is estimated about $2 billion could be gained by families as a result of putting their children through early learning services.  Individuals who were enrolled in quality preschool education tend to earn around $2,000 more per month than those who were not. 

Beyond numbers there are many benefits of early education.  Students are better prepared when they enter kindergarten, meaning they are less likely to fall behind.  This helps keep them out of costly remediation programs.  Everything from graduation rates to literacy proficiency are improved for students that attended preschool or pre-k programs.

When it comes to investments, the research is clear and overwhelming. Minneapolis Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick and his colleague, Rob Grunewald, co-authored a paper touting pre-k as just about the best public investment a community could ever make. Their calculations show a return of up to 16 percent. Where else can an investment receive a return like that?

All of this is starting to add up.

Given our fiscal situation, it is important to make smart decisions going forward. We need to talk numbers. Eliminating early education investments increases prison populations by 39 percent. Paying for a person in prison costs nearly three times more per year than providing quality early learning.

This is just one example of how cutting early childhood education now is essentially the same thing as inflating the budget in the very near future.

There are positive ongoing effects to early learning opportunities.  Students that succeed more get higher paying jobs and tend to read to their children more, which then improves their child’s education and so on and so forth. 

There are hundreds of studies that support the benefits of early learning and reading to your children. That’s why we need to continue the Imagination Library, Parents as Teachers and pre-school. 

Since we are looking for revenue generation in Alaska, we should invest in our greatest resource – our children.

[signed] Chris Tuck
District 23 State Representative Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage)

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