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Early Ed Saves Money, Short-Term, Analysis Shows

Studies showing that quality early-childhood education produces long-term savings for taxpayers are fairly common, but with state budgets in crisis, advocates are under pressure to show short-term cost savings, too. Advocates in Washington State are leading the charge, arguing that early education saves state K-12 systems money as soon as children start kindergarten by reducing the need for special education services.

Legislators challenged the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP (the state's early childhood program) to show how preschool programs can save states money in the short run. Advocates dug into a few existing studies to show that because preschool catches children with developmental delays early and addresses their problems, state K-12 education systems save big bucks on special education and grade retention. A very conservative estimate in Washington State is that a non-special-education student costs the state $65,500 to educate from kindergarten through graduation, while a student in special education costs more than twice that—$165,500.

Meanwhile, savings can add up faster in locales where special education costs are even higher. As a study from Montgomery County, Md., notes, most kindergartners in special education are receiving services for speech impairments or developmental delays. By kindergarten, children who had attended full-day Head Start required 62 percent fewer hours of services needed for children without any pre-K experience: 3.2 hours per Head Start student vs. 9.8 hours for children without prior pre-K.

And here's the kicker: The Washington State advocates talked to the Montgomery County researchers, and were told that special education services cost an additional $16,230 per student annually (above a base per-pupil annual cost of $14,466). From this information, they calculated cost savings as follows:

$16,230 x 0.62 (62%)=$10,062.60, or roughly $10,100 per full-day Head Start student.

Ironically, I'm told Maryland's budget situation is relatively stable and preschool is not under the shadow of a budget axe.

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