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My view: Investing in early childhood education has long-term benefits

By Mona Burton

Published: Sunday, June 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman shows that early childhood development directly influences the economic, health and social outcomes for individuals and society by promoting brain development and productive habits, such as persistence and cooperation.

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As a partner of a law firm with offices across the Mountain West and in Washington, D.C., board chairwoman of United Way of Salt Lake and a volunteer job coach for refugee youth, I strongly believe in supporting programs that will change the odds for children, communities, businesses and our economy.

Currently, one of every five Utah students drops out of school. More alarming, only 61 percent of African-American and 63 percent of Hispanic students graduate from high school.

This performance affects these students and our community as a whole. Innovation is a key driver of business success, and innovation demands a well-educated workforce. Yet in today's economy, a high school diploma is just the starting line for our workforce to acquire the kind of knowledge it needs, and high-quality early childhood education programs are the starting line for success in school.

Research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman shows that early childhood development directly influences the economic, health and social outcomes for individuals and society by promoting brain development and productive habits, such as persistence and cooperation. While parents are the most important early nurturers of their children, they sometimes need help. Plus, children benefit from being in social and educational settings that teach them not only their ABCs but also how to get along with others.

Moreover, educational investment in the youngest Utahns — birth to age 5 — is a cost-effective strategy for promoting economic growth. Heckman says early childhood development investments would increase our graduation rate by 5 percent, and if that 5 percent go on to college, their average earnings would increase by $24 million annually.

Locally, United Way has data that shows high-quality preschool helps avoid costs in long-term educational remediation. A partnership among United Way of Salt Lake, Voices for Utah Children and the Granite School District has been collecting data on a group of children in the Granite School District who received high-quality preschool services. To date, the Granite Preschool Program has helped avoid $1.75 million in state special education spending from school year 2007-08 through 2011-12 due to a reduction in special education use among the at-risk preschoolers in the study. Additionally, those children who entered kindergarten at the top of their class stayed at the top of their class through the fourth grade.

High-quality preschool, especially for disadvantaged children, produces a range of benefits. It increases high school graduation rates, reduces crime, improves health outcomes and decreases the need for expensive social services. A 5 percent increase in the graduation rate of males, for example, would save Utah $15 million in annual incarceration costs and crime-related expenditures.

Utah has 300,000 children ages birth to 5 years old, 40 percent who are in low-income families. Their chances of success could be greatly enhanced with investments in early childhood programs.

This fall, federal lawmakers will consider a potentially game-changing initiative to expand access to the kind of high-quality early learning programs children need in order to succeed in school and, as adults, in the workforce. We need our lawmakers to know how important high-quality early learning programs are to the future of Utah and our country, so I was one of more than 200 business leaders around the country who signed Ready Nation's open letter to lawmakers in Washington expressing my support for early childhood investments.

Business people throughout Utah work hard to create new solutions to keep our businesses prepared for the challenges of today and tomorrow. Investing in early childhood programs will help Utah and our country realize long-term benefits that we all can enjoy: greater choices for our children and a more skilled workforce ready to perform jobs of the 21st century.

Mona Burton is a partner at Holland & Hart and also a chairwoman for United Way of Salt Lake.

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