By Tom Still

MADISON – The morning after Gov. Jim Doyle used his annual State of the State speech to urge more investment in early childhood education, two nationally known experts came to town to explain how that investment would pay for itself – many times over.

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, perhaps most important, to stay out of jail.

All of that accrues huge dividends for society, Michigan researcher Larry Schweinhart and Washington, D.C., investor Robert Dugger told a conference of 150 educators, child care experts and business people. You needn’t take their word on it: Study after study, including one that meticulously traced a group of pre-school students through age 40, has reached the same conclusion.

Backed by decades of research charting paybacks ranging up to $13 for every $1 spent, will Doyle’s plan to invest more in pre-school programs sail through the Legislature? It might — except state government is facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit by mid-2007, and members of the Legislature are still uncertain how and where to make ends meet.

Until the full 2005-2007 budget is rolled out by Doyle in February, lawmakers will reserve judgment on most new spending. That’s understandable. In the same speech in which Doyle outlined a handful of sensible education priorities, he hinted at 15 more spending initiatives and didn’t tip his hand about major reductions.

To be sure, Doyle talked about selling state cars and refinancing debt to take advantage of lower interest rates. But the real money in state government is found in five programs that will account for $20.1 billion of the $22.9 billion in general tax dollars being spent in the current two-year cycle. Those programs are health and family services (led by Medicaid), aids to local governments and local taxpayers, the UW System, corrections and K-12 education.

For advocates of targeted spending on early childhood programs, such as four-year-old kindergarten, the coming clash over budget priorities demands a strategy that emphasizes return on investment. If business leaders and citizens across Wisconsin are persuaded more money for education will yield a stronger economy and less spending on prisons and welfare, they may support it.

That was the message delivered Jan. 13 in Madison by Schweinhart, president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., and Dugger, managing partner of Tudor Investment Corp.

Schweinhart described how 123 young African-American children, all from poor homes, were randomly assigned to pre-school classes for three- and four-year-olds, or no classes at all. That was 1962. Today, the children who attended pre-school are statistically ahead in every category. They were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to get a job, more likely to earn more, and, in the case of the male students, more likely to take part in raising their own children.

Perhaps most significantly, the program group has been far less involved in crime. That alone saved society $171,000 in 1962 dollars versus the $15,000 invested in the pre-school program at the time.

“High-quality pre-school programs for young children living in poverty contribute to their intellectual and social development in childhood and their school success, economic performance and reduced commission of crime in adulthood,” Schweinhart said.

Avowed capitalist Dugger reinforced the message by warning that America will lose its economic competitiveness unless it invests more in education. Citing the work of Nobel Prize-winning economists, the Federal Reserve Board and a variety of pro-business groups, Dugger said upgrading workforce quality is essential if the United States hopes to compete in the 21st century.

“A nation that puts the interests of its children first, in everything it does, will do everything better,” Dugger said. “A nation that puts kids first thinks long-term. It has a surer moral footing, less crime, stronger economic growth, a healthier environment and a greater ability to lead others by example.”

Dugger zeroed in on early childhood programs as the best investment, noting it’s the least expensive way to create the largest number of productive citizens.

The business case for early childhood education is strong. In Wisconsin, there will be chronic worker shortages for decades unless all kids get a head start now. It’s why the Doyle plan deserves a shot, even in tough times.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. For more on the 1962 High/Scope pre-school experiment, go to