Early-childhood education is best return on investment

When we consider the term “return on investment,” we typically think about how our retirement account is doing or how much our home has appreciated since purchase. But as we look for ways to continue to strengthen our middle class, our nation has all too often overlooked the return on investment that comes from strengthening early-childhood education. Like many, I was encouraged that President Obama chose to highlight early-childhood education in his State of the Union address, and he followed that up by proposing significant investments in early-childhood care and education in his budget request to Congress last month. With our country on the cusp of an economic recovery, there is no better time to strengthen our middle class by increasing access to high-quality early-childhood programs for the youngest members of our society, particularly for low- and middle-income families.

Why is early-childhood education so important? We know that learning starts at birth, and the preparation for learning starts before birth. Eighty percent of a child’s brain develops between birth and the age of 3, with much of the child’s intellect, personality and skills developed before he or she begins kindergarten. A solid initial investment in young children will save us billions in future spending on remedial education, criminal justice, health and welfare programs.


These are just a few of the reasons why stakeholders — as diverse as the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to the Chamber of Commerce to Nobel laureates — have agreed that investments in high-quality early-childhood education provide an outstanding return on investment. In 1990, the Committee for Economic Development delivered a report titled “The Unfinished Agenda.” The business leaders on the committee met for years to determine what we needed to do in education so our economic future would be brighter. They said one of the most important action items that we as a nation could take would be to make early-childhood education available to all of our children.

As chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, I have long championed early-childhood education as one of the most effective ways to set up a child for a lifetime of learning. Even during times of fiscal restraint, I have made a commitment to providing resources to improve access to, and the quality of, early-childhood education, including through Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant and the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. I am heartened that a number of states, including West Virginia and Pennsylvania, have refused to cut spending on early-childhood education even during challenging fiscal times, in recognition of its great importance and impact on the lives of our most vulnerable children.

While we have made significant strides over the years in strengthening early-childhood education, we have even further to go before we can say that true progress has been achieved. Cuts to discretionary spending over recent years, scheduled to continue over the next decade, threaten the investments we have already made and could severely limit the possibilities for investments in the future. Budget cuts at the state level will do the same. Currently, less than half of children eligible for Head Start are served, and less than 5 percent of infants and toddlers eligible for Early Head Start are served. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks the United States a dismal 28th out of 38 countries for the share of 4-year-olds enrolled in early-childhood programs. Compounding the situation is the fact that our current system is a patchwork. Aligning early-childhood programs is one of the goals we must focus on as we look to improve the system.

Working closely with the Obama administration and members of the Senate, I have begun work on a legislative framework that would expand high-quality early-childhood education for children from birth to age 5. Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia offer state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. My proposal would accelerate the progress already made by states, pushed for by Democratic and Republican governors alike, and will help states that want to start or expand high-quality pre-kindergarten programs. It will also build off investments in Head Start and improve access to high-quality early-childhood care and education for infants and toddlers.

Expanding access to high-quality early-childhood education programs will give parents the security of knowing their children are in a safe and nurturing environment. It’s what they should expect, and it’s what children deserve. At a time when partisan rancor seems to permeate the Capitol more than ever, I believe that strengthening early-childhood education and improving access to these programs is an issue on which Democrats and Republicans can find common ground.

Harkin is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.