October 26, 2007

Early ed can help close achievement gap, experts say

Source: NYSUT News Wire

When it comes to closing the achievement gap, expanding access to pre-K is one of the smartest investments communities can make. That was the key message of a session on early childhood education at NYSUT's "Every Child Counts: A Symposium Dedicated to Ending the Gap."

Debra J. Ackerman, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, said communities that invest in pre-K programs see their investments returned several times over through various cost savings and tax revenue increases.

Research studies have found that low-income students who had access to pre-K were less likely to be in costly special ed programs in school; eventually made more money; were more likely to own their own homes as adults; were less likely to receive public assistance; and had fewer instances of arrests and incarcerations.

"Instead of building prisons, let's invest in preschool," Ackerman said, pointing out that a pre-school program in an area near Detroit cost $17,599 per child, but led to savings and increased tax revenues amounting to $284,086 per student.

Ackerman said low-income students often enter kindergarten trailing their more wealthy counterparts academically and socially, which demonstrates their need for preschool. However, she pointed out, children from all income demographics seem to benefit significantly from early childhood education.

Despite the economic benefits, school districts across New York have faced challenges starting preschool programs, according to Karen Schimke, co-convener of Winning Beginning, an early education advocacy group. New York school districts this year all received funds for pre-K programs, but many have failed to launch programs.

School districts face a variety of obstacles when starting pre-K programs. Some districts, even with the new state funding, are receiving less than $3,000 per child, and superintendents surveyed by Schimke's group said that they need more time to prepare programs and are worried about eventually losing funding. Schools also must deal with transportation issues, which are particularly troubling in rural areas, and the fact that working parents may have difficulty arranging care for students enrolled in half-day programs.

Despite these challenges, Schimke said, there is great reason for optimism. In 2006-2007, 72,000 4-year-olds out of 220,000 in New York attended pre-school, and that number could increase to 117,000 this year. Also, a broad coalition has begun forming to advocate for early childhood education, particularly for high-risk students. Law enforcement officials and doctors have even formed groups, understanding the links between pre-K and reduced crime and improved health.

"Closing the achievement gap needs to matter to everyone," Schimke said, "because it's all about our future."