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Opinion: The ROI of child care, early education

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Lawmakers across the country face two major challenges: managing shrinking budgets and supporting policies that will strengthen America’s work force and get our economy growing again. Our nation’s prosperity depends on both.

Investing in child care and early education is a fiscally responsible way to reduce deficits and produce big gains for children and taxpayers. That’s why it’s time we talk about protecting our current investments in these economic sectors.

In the near-term, investing in child care and early learning can increase academic achievement and reduce costs associated with grade retention and special education services. On a national level, we’re spending more than $10,000 per pupil on special-education programs – that’s roughly $50 billion per year.

Over a lifetime, investments to provide quality care in the early years generate big returns. According to research by Nobel laureate economist James Heckman, these investments are among the most cost-efficient, resulting in better outcomes in education, health and the economy, through lowering the costs of remediation and social dependence. Those real cost savings add up to as much as a 10 percent annual economic return – a solid performance in any market.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that federal lawmakers have learned this important lesson. During the lame-duck session in Congress in late December, lawmakers passed a continuing budget resolution that puts 300,000 children at risk of losing their Head Start, Early Head Start and child care services, and puts states at risk to lose their quality improvement investments in child care.

The federal Child Care Development Block Grant, Early Head Start and Head Start programs provide quality early experiences for children in 2.5 million American families. Programs in the early years build the engine of cognitive and character skills that drive success in school, college, career and life. Cutting back on these programs creates a missed opportunity.

We must urge Congress and President Obama to right that situation in the 2011 federal budget. The budget decisions our lawmakers make today will determine whether Missouri children get the early childhood education they need to be prepared for school and life.

—L. Carol Scott, Child Care Aware of Missouri, executive director
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