Education. Education. Education. It’s the mantra you hear from just about anybody who talks about the key to South Carolina’s future success. They suggest more, that it be better and that it be innovative.
And despite wags who say you can’t throw money at our education system to fix it, there’s a pretty good business case to be made that investing more in early childhood education will pay off big in the future.
According to a groundbreaking 2007 study by researcher Robert G. Lynch, if South Carolina started a high-quality pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds, the annual cost would be $442 million in 2008 dollars.
But before you get your britches in a knot, look at the benefits: First, we already pay a lot of money that would be included in the total amount. Second, the program would start paying for itself in just nine years, the study says. Total benefits by 2050 would be $9.2 billion with an overall cost of $1.2 billion. Savings to the state’s budget over the years would be more than $2.3 billion plus another $1.8 billion in savings to individuals from reduction in crime. Increased wages and benefits would be $5.2 billion.
Bottom line: The benefit to cost ratio of investing in early childhood education would be 7.5 to 1. That’s an outstanding return! A study for the Partnership for America’s Economic Success says early childhood education produces a ten-fold return.
Fancy research, however, isn’t the only thing that touts more early childhood education programs. The S.C. Chamber of Commerce has a goal of 80 percent of the state’s at-risk children completing pre-K programs by 2020. Successful programs in Hawaii, Arkansas, Texas and Pennsylvania highlight how early childhood education closes achievement gaps and gives more kids the tools that they need to succeed.
South Carolina’s pre-K education structure currently is a mish-mash of programs split between public 4K in some places funded by Education Improvement Act and Title One dollars to Head Start to ABC Child Care vouchers to private kindergarten. All totaled, an estimated 41,000 of South Carolina’s 4-year-olds have some kind of pre-K education. But about half that number don’t get anything.
South Carolina should consider following the model of sister state Georgia, which has reached more than a million 4-year-olds through a voluntary pre-K program the state started in the early 1990s. Last year, some 82,000 students participated at a cost of about $3,500 per student. The total annual cost was just over $300 million.
What’s interesting about the Georgia program is how it blends participation by public and private organizations. Some 912 private companies in 1,844 locations provided 2,111 classes that educated 44,732 children in 2011-12. Public school systems provided 1,726 classrooms where 37,283 students received pre-K instruction.
Instead of embarking on expensive building programs, South Carolina’s “educracy” could partner with public school districts and private companies to deliver pre-K instruction to the 20,000 kids not being served now. The estimated cost — $70 million to $85 million — ain’t peanuts, but it could be funded through sales tax reform of the billions of exemptions given away for years to special interests.
An alternative source of funding? Lottery dollars. The way that the statewide lottery law currently is written, the lion’s share of proceeds go to college scholarships. But there’s a mechanism in current law that could provide scholarships to pre-K students to attend public or private classes.
Many South Carolinians who voted for the statewide lottery did so on the incorrect assumption that the millions in new funds would help the primary and secondary education system. But the way it works now, the current system rewards those who get through school with college, but fails to invest on the front end to give all kids a better chance of succeeding.
So it kind of makes sense to rethink how lottery proceeds are used. Instead of investing only at the end of the process, why not invest some in the beginning and give kids a better chance to be ready for first grade?
Early childhood education makes economic and business sense. More importantly, as one executive said this summer, “It’s the right thing to do” now in South Carolina.