By Tom Still

MADISON – The numbers are hard to dispute: Kids who attend organized but relatively inexpensive pre-school programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to earn more as adults, to stay off welfare and to avoid spending time in jail.


All of that accrues huge dividends for society, with long-term economic paybacks for early childhood education pegged as high as $17 for every $1 spent. Study after study, including one that meticulously traced a group of Michigan pre-school students through age 40, has reached the same conclusion.


So why isn’t the business community in Wisconsin and elsewhere embracing the merits of early childhood education? Most likely, they’re fearful it’s just another fad. Business leaders have been told too many times – by conservatives and liberals alike – that one educational trend or another is the Holy Grail.


Think of all the educational elixirs that have been concocted since “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. That report, which sounded the alarm bell about shortcomings in American schools, was followed by waves of reform. Private school “choice,” charter schools, tougher high-school graduation requirements, smaller class sizes, literacy exams for teachers, merit pay for teachers, required standardized tests for students, new teacher licensing requirements and much more have followed “A Nation at Risk.”


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, business was told that eliminating the U.S. Department of Education was the right thing to do. Now it’s being told that “No Child Left Behind,” a massive federal intrusion on the ability of individual states to run their own educational programs, is the answer. Go figure.


It’s not that anyone expected a single reform to cure what ailed public education in America. In fact, a mix of ideas – public and private – may have been the right recipe. Business leaders have been told too many times, however, that one reform or another is the panacea. Private school vouchers were supposed to have turned Milwaukee’s underperforming students into mini-Einsteins by now ( a conservative idea) and smaller class sizes in Wisconsin’s SAGE program were touted as a salvation for at-risk primary students (a liberal idea).


So forgive business leaders if they don’t rush immediately to the altar of early childhood education, even if the economic case for investing a few bucks in Head Start, four-year-old kindergarten and improved child care is appealing.


At the same time, a number of business leaders are standing at the church door, listening intently, and trying to make up their minds about whether to sit in the pews.


An economic case for investing in early childhood education was presented at the recent “Strongest Links” conference in Madison, which was attended by about 200 people and sponsored by about 20 organizations and state agencies. Speakers agreed that dollars spent on teaching kids before they reach kindergarten are wise investments, especially by the time those children are grown and ready to enter the workforce.


A report on the short-term economic effects of expanding four-year-old kindergarten in Wisconsin concluded that 32,102 extra four-year-olds could take part each year at annual cost of $207 million. In short order, however, the schools would save $141 million from lower special-education placements, higher teacher retention and reduced pressure on other services.


“For every dollar invested in pre-kindergarten, the education system should recoup 68 (statewide) or 76 cents (Milwaukee schools) in terms of savings from other budgetary outlays,” concluded a study co-authored by Clive Belfield of Queens College in New York and Dennis Winters of NorthStar Economics in Madison. “Therefore, the financing burden for investing in pre-k will not be as great as might first be anticipated.”


Business leaders are listening to the arguments. They recognize that parents who aren’t worried every working day about their kids make better employees. In fact, many businesses take steps on their own to improve employee child care.


The business case for societal investments in early childhood education is strong. Current evidence shows it’s the least expensive way to create the largest number of productive citizens. And with demographic trends pointing to huge worker shortages, it may be to our advantage in Wisconsin to see that all kids get a head start now.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.