Guest opinion: Pre-K education crucial to economic future

Beck A. Taylor

Before I became president of Whitworth University, I spent many years as a researcher and economist. I am trained to examine societal problems and to look to the future at the challenges – and the opportunities – that lie ahead.

Right now, our businesses are struggling to find skilled and qualified workers. But there is a clear opportunity to overcome these problems by investing in high-quality pre-K education.

Washington businesses of all kinds and sizes are challenged to find the right mix of skilled workers who can master complex tasks and spur the innovation needed for future growth. Unless our entire educational system does some things differently, this problem will continue to grow. And compelling research shows that the period from birth to age 5 is absolutely critical in developing a child’s intellectual, social and emotional potential and raising his or her odds for a bright future.

Early-learning programs not only help children develop essential skills, they significantly reduce future societal costs. High-quality pre-K reduces the need for some special-education programs, helps curb dropout rates, and diminishes the likelihood of children losing their way and falling into the criminal justice system.

University of Chicago professor James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, has taken a hard look at data on the benefits of high-quality early childhood programs. He concludes that “The rate of return for investment in quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children is 7-10 percent per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity, and reduced crime.” He adds that these investments “pay dividends for the life of the child.”

As a father, I’ve seen the importance of pre-K for my own kids. As an educator, I see even more value in setting all kids on an early path to success. And as an economist, I know that this investment is integral in providing our businesses with a strong and well-prepared future workforce.

Fortunately, the advantages of high-quality early learning are abundant, and we do not have to wait even 20 years to reap the economic benefits of investing in these programs. Every $1 that we invest today results in roughly $2 in sales of goods and services to Washington businesses; this rate of investment outperforms that in other sectors like construction, transportation and manufacturing.

In addition, access to topnotch pre-K can help alleviate serious issues for our current workforce. In Washington, the parents of 60 percent of children under the age of 6 are in the workforce, and businesses are losing billions of dollars each year due to child care problems. Providing working families with high-quality pre-K will significantly reduce employee absenteeism and turnover, and will increase employee productivity. However, the median income in our state is $64,300, and the average annual cost of a strong early learning program is $5,411, leaving these programs out of reach for many working families without financial assistance.

The good news is that Congress is considering legislation to help states create, expand and improve early childhood education programs. The legislation calls for investments in proven programs such as preschools, voluntary home visiting and early learning for infants and toddlers – all without adding to the national debt.

We must urge our senators and representatives to work together to get this legislation passed. By supporting investments in early childhood education, we can help today’s economy and avoid even bigger problems down the road. Right now, we are being presented with the chance to change course. Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.

Beck A. Taylor, Ph.D., is the 18th president of Whitworth University, a member of America’s Edge and a director of Thrive By Five Washington.