Preschoolers are the key to economic growth

Early Education Matters.

What if babies, toddlers and preschoolers were at the center of the most promising national policies to drive economic growth? We believe they should be.

Here’s why:

Young children ages zero to five who do not receive high quality early childhood education and services are 25% more likely to drop out of school. And research from the Alliance for Excellent Education shows increasing the high school graduation rate in Massachusetts from 80% to 90%, or about 5,000 students, would result in some big economic benefits: an $80 million increase in annual earnings, a $51 million increase in annual spending and a $14 million increase in state and local tax revenue.

Research from national economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago shows a return of $8 in “social benefits,” such as government savings and economic potential, for every $1 invested in early education.

With these kinds of returns, investing in the early education of young children should be a no-brainer.

In Massachusetts, however, over 28,000 low-income children were on the waiting list for income-eligible child care in 2015. That’s 28,000 children facing a one in four chance of dropping out of school. But we need to approach that gap the right way.

Quality Matters.

“To truly realize the long-term economic benefits, the focus needs to go beyond providing access to more children to ensuring those early learning experiences are high-quality,” says Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, who sits on the Executive Committee for the Boston Quality Universal Pre-K Initiative.

Early Education Brain BuildingScientific studies show that high-quality early learning experiences positively impact the development of the brain and lay the foundation for future academic success. Poverty, neglect and maternal depression negatively impact early childhood development, according to the state’s Brain Building in Progress campaign, a partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care and United Way. Known as “toxic stress,” these conditions increase the likelihood of developmental delays.

How do we know a program is high quality? Ausiello says young children need programs that offer a skilled workforce trained in identifying early developmental warning signals, an academic environment focused on social and emotional skills as well as literacy and STEM, and safe, enriching environments and experiences.

This year, United Way is investing over $2.5 million in 59 high-performing community organizations providing quality early education. This funding is expected to reach over 14,600 young children in our region, helping to better prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

In partnership with private equity/venture capital leaders, United Way developed DRIVE, an innovative approach to screening young children in the City of Boston to identify children showing potential developmental concerns and connecting them to the supports needed to get back on track. To date, over 3,200 young children in Greater Boston have been screened and assessed, the first step in providing critical early intervention services. The data is also fed back to the programs to help them develop strategies to improve their programming to better address the areas where children fall behind.

Physical environment also plays a role in the quality of an early education environment. Yet a 2011 report by the Children’s Investment Fund revealed that 33 percent of centers statewide had safety issues and 54% of programs lacked indoor gross motor space and equipment. In response, United Way advocated for and won passage of legislation which authorized $45 million to create a new Early Education and Out of School Capital Fund to improve the quality of center-based facilities. To date, the Commonwealth has awarded $11 million to help early education programs upgrade their physical learning spaces.

This year, United Way will continue to seek ways to increase access and expand the quality of early childhood programming through partnerships with the City of Boston and the Barr Foundation, along with screening young children and supporting innovative approaches to improving the quality of programs across the Commonwealth.

Investment matters.

The forecast is encouraging. The philanthropic world is increasingly taking a look at early education as an investment opportunity. This summer, The Bridgespan Group issued a report with high-potential early childhood development investment opportunities. These include funding screening and assessment research and identifying technology-based solutions to foster quality adult-child interactions at a large scale.

And last month, United Way of Central Indiana announced a $5 million gift from Sarah and John Lechleiter, which will be matched by Eli Lilly and its Company Foundation, for a total gift of $10 million. A significant portion of the gift will support the expansion of high-quality early education centers in Central Indiana. In addition, this gift will help provide scholarships to children from low-income families so that they can gain access to these programs. John Lechleiter is Chairman, President and CEO of Eli Lilly and Company and is Chairman of the United Way Worldwide Board of Directors.

Massachusetts business leaders and elected officials are also sharpening their focus on improving the quality of early education in the Commonwealth. This summer, the Boston Globe reported that House Speaker Robert Deleo pulled together business leaders to help craft an agenda for the coming year, drawing on their enthusiasm for investments that work.

“With finite state and federal resources available, public-private partnerships and philanthropy will be critical to providing more high quality programming for our state’s children,” Ausiello said. “The good news is that there are many promising solutions for social investors looking for a high-impact economic return.”