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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

October 23, 2014 at 10:41 AM

Early learning and the economy

Beyond the virtues of social justice and doing the right thing for the public interest, Proposition 1-B carries big potential gains for the Seattle economy.

In the book From Preschool to Prosperity, W.E. Upjohn Institute senior economist Timothy J. Bartik makes a persuasive case that based on rigorous research, “We know enough to move forward with a full-scale proposal for early childhood education.” It “has economic benefits exceeding costs, and it would particularly benefit children from poor and working-class families.”

This is a goal of the high-quality four-year pilot program that would be funded by Prop. 1-B.

Children in quality pre-K programs are much more likely to thrive in grade school and graduate from high school. That opens the door to college. As adults, research shows, their earnings can be anywhere from 3 percent to 26 percent higher than children who didn’t have pre-K. Bartik argues that the study showing a 3-percent gain still shows benefits because the increases are averaged out over a large group.

These programs have a good economic payoff in that benefits significantly exceed costs. Early childhood programs do not solve all problems for all program participants. But (the programs) do enough good for a sufficient number of child participants that they make good economic sense.

In more ways than one. With children in early childhood programs, parents are freed to work or go to school. Also, high-school dropouts are most likely to become drags in society, whether through depending on social assistance because they can’t get better jobs, or because they end up in prison. The productivity costs of people less ready to enter the workforce are significant.

This is a big issue in Seattle despite our outward prosperity. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2012, 11.3 percent of all children were below the federal poverty line. For African-American children, the number was 43.4 percent and for Hispanics 24.3 percent  In the Seattle Public Schools, 25 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level — a significant predictor of whether they will graduate from high school. For students of color or in poverty, the rates reach 40 percent.

Inequality is stark. But quality education is one way out. Indeed, it is more important than ever because the factory work that once allowed unskilled employees to gain abilities and move up has all but disappeared. A wider net of education also helps ensure that Seattle is able to compete against top world cities that don’t have America’s educational drag. “Business has been very supportive (of 1-B) from the beginning,” City Council President Tim Burgess told me. “From the beginning, they saw how investing in this program reaps huge benefits.” The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber has endorsed it.

If the $58 million levy is passed, the program will be executed by the city. Burgess said entities, including non-profits, the SPS and the private sector, would compete to establish the pilot programs. “We will hold them to rigorous standards and outcomes,” he said. That last part will be essential.

If the pilot works, then the city must find a way to broaden it and fund it. But it’s an essential start if Seattle is to up its game economically and do right by all citizens.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Cut mortgage standards

Announced at a casino

Stuff you can’t make up


Comments | More in | Topics: Early-childhood education, Education, Prop. 1-B


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