Early childhood education, economic development and the school referendum

Mr. Frost reads to his preschool class
Mr. Frost reads to his preschool class

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Cook County Schools ISD 166 is going to voters for approval of a property tax increase to help support and sustain the district’s operations. A small part of what the levy would preserve is money designated for early childhood education: education for kids before kindergarten and support for their families.

Eric Frost teaches preschool at Cook County Schools ISD166 and his daily challenge is to channel that excitement into structured learning opportunities.  “Students who are three and four years old are so excited about everything they see,” says Frost. “Early childhood education capitalizes on that exorbitant interest in the world around them. And so, we are able to teach students a huge number of vocabulary words, we’re able to get students interested in literacy and books, and all of these pre-academic skills that kindergarten requires of them.”  Frost works on a lot of basic skills in his class. He has his students tackle everything from following multi-step directions, to coordination, to learning the ABCs and numbers. He also endeavors to develop their young imaginations.

Research has demonstrated a great benefit to working with kids at this young age. Close to 80 percent of the brain is developed by age five, so early childhood education targets a critical time of development.  According to Art Rolnick, former vice president and head of research for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis who has devoted much of his career to research on early childhood education, “If you intervene with positive programs in the earliest years, you have long-term effects in terms of kids doing better in school, more likely to be literate by the sixth grade, graduate high school, get a job, pay taxes and stay off welfare.”

The benefits also go beyond the school system. Rolnick and others have found that investing in early childhood education is one of the best economic development strategies out there. According to Rolnick’s colleague Rob Grunewald, “Once you add up all the benefits of investments in early childhood relative to the cost, we found really high returns. The rate of return, 16 percent, is much higher than the rate of return we see in the stock market over a long period of time, which is about six percent.”  An investment in childhood education has also been shown to benefit the larger community. According to Grunwald, “Most of the benefit that accrues to early childhood investments goes to the public; that is, to the non-participants. More than half of the benefits go to essentially the tax-payer, not only just the family and the children who participate.”

Funding for early childhood education programs at Cook County Schools, however, now hangs in the balance. Although the benefits are widely understood, the state doesn’t provide much funding for it. If the levy fails, parts of the program will certainly be cut. According to Cook County Schools Superintendent Beth Schwartz, this is a concern because there is already some research that shows a greater number of kids in Cook County show up to kindergarten underprepared than elsewhere in the state. “Right now,” says Schwartz, “we know that research around the state is showing that 50 percent of the children entering kindergarten are underprepared.  The research that we have in Cook County suggests that that could be as high as 60 percent of our children underprepared for kindergarten. So if that continues, or if we have to make reductions, that either stays the same or gets worse. Then what we see then is the school district spending more money on remedial programs, and the school spending more money on special education, leaving less money to challenge our higher level students.  It also has the long-term counter benefits like lower homeownership and lower economic status as these kids leave school.”

If the levy does pass, Schwarz says early childhood education is one of the areas that will benefit from some additional funding. That would allow the district to maintain an early childhood parent educator and the preschool program in general. “Other areas those dollars would be spent,” says Schwartz, “would be developing a more county wide curriculum-not only here at ISD166, but county-wide, working with our preschools and daycares.  So if the levy would pass this is money that would benefit every early child out there-under kindergarten.”

But tax increases are hard to stomach, especially in tough economic times. According to John Van Hecke, the executive director of Minnesota 2020, a non-partisan think-tank that focuses in part on educational issues across the state, this frustration is showing up at the local level.  “People are looking at their local property tax payment and saying ‘It’s just going up and up and up!’ and they are absolutely right about that,” Van Hecke says.

Over the past eight years, funding for schools throughout the state has declined by 14 percent. Of the 337 school districts in Minnesota, 333 have seen a decline in funding. In response, districts have been tightening their belts by making cuts and have been going to property owners for levies to close the gap.  And schools are not the only ones out asking: cities, counties, and lots of local agencies are trying to make up for cuts in state funding though property taxes.  “I understand the frustration that people feel,” says Van Hecke.  “It seems like all they are being asked for is more money and they know from their own experiences that their kids are increasingly sitting in classrooms that are more and more packed and they don’t have the resources for the kind of schooling that they need, but it’s not a local cause of that.  The state has cut 14 percent of its contribution to schools and that has real consequences and those are the consequences we’re seeing. And it’s a frustration. But I guess I would urge people not to get sucked into that framework of just blaming the local school. Schools are overwhelmingly doing a phenomenal job with far fewer resources. But there’s no way that taking money out of the system is going to improve schools.”

The vote on the local school levy is Nov. 2, and how it will impact our community remains to be seen.


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