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Governor rightly pushes for earlier investment in children

In 1967, researchers in Ypsilanti, Mich., randomly assigned a group of poor children to a high-quality preschool, and another group to no preschool at all. By age 5, the former preschoolers were more likely to score above 90 on an IQ test (67 percent vs. 28 percent). In school, they were less likely to repeat a grade (20 percent vs. 41 percent). In adulthood, they were less likely to be incarcerated (19 percent vs. 43 percent). At age 40, they had a higher median income ($1,856 per month vs. $1,308). The benefits even passed on to the next generation: More fathers who had gone to preschool were raising their own kids (57 percent vs. 30 percent).

The Perry Preschool study, one of the most famous social experiments of the last 50 years, adds to the preponderance of the evidence suggesting that investments early in life can reap powerful benefits later. That’s why Governor Patrick’s plan to expand access to early education is a potential game-changer for poor children, working parents, and even the state budget.

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The plan aims to reduce the 30,000-child waiting list for state-funded child care by providing more vouchers to child care providers. But it also aims to make that care far more educational. About half of the proposed $131 million increase for 2014 would go toward boosting salaries, funding professional development, and making competitive grants to innovative programs that want to expand. Improving quality is essential. Studies show that reaping the benefits of early learning requires the work of educators, not babysitters.

Massachusetts has made good strides with a new rating system that distinguishes between the two. But we have a long way to go. Only 58 percent of the 49,000 children in state-funded care are in programs that provide an educational component. Only 1 percent are in programs with a “level four” highest-quality ranking. As the state ramps up this investment to a planned $350 million in 2017, it must monitor progress and demand results.

Quality doesn’t have to break the bank: The Perry Preschool cost about $10,750 per child per year, in today’s dollars — only about $700 more than Massachusetts currently spends on subsidized care.

Patrick isn’t out on a limb on early education. His plan follows more ambitious campaigns in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Florida. So Massachusetts can learn from them. And much like antismoking campaigns changed our culture for the better, the governor’s push — along with recent remarks by President Obama — will remind all parents that learning begins at birth.

The governor’s plan also requests a relatively small amount of money — $9 million in the first year — for public schools to add preschool classes. Reimbursing school districts for preschoolers is not an expensive proposition now because few districts are ready to set up classes. But it could balloon in the future.

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In some rural communities, the public school might be the institution best situated to create an ambitious early education program. But there are legitimate questions about whether very young children should be educated alongside older kids, and whether creating a new public-school bureaucracy will yield the best, and most cost-effective, results.

As it reviews Patrick’s overall budget proposal, the Legislature should look for potential savings in early education. But it should preserve the scope and ambition: It should be self-evident that helping young people avoid remedial classes and incarceration will yield a monetary return, not merely a social one. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman estimates that for every dollar spent on high-quality preschool, the public gets about $7 back in savings. In Utah, one preschool alone is believed to have saved the state $1.8 million dollars by decreasing the need for special education. In Massachusetts, home to some 163,000 special education students, even a 10 percent decrease could save $150 million or more.

Early education does have its naysayers. Some point to a recent study of Head Start showing that benefits fade by the third grade. But that study has some flaws: A significant number of kids in the “control group” attended preschool outside of Head Start. Still, it is a good reminder that preschool is the beginning — not the end — of education. What 4-year-olds learn must be reinforced in elementary school and beyond.

TOMORROW: A look at higher education

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