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Can Early-Childhood-Education Programs Deliver If Lead Teachers Are Paid Less Than Dog Walkers?

Van Schoales is the president of A+ Colorado and the go-to on Colorado education policy and politics. He has more than 30 years of experience in education advocacy and analysis. Before his tenure at A+ Colorado began, he taught high school science and founded a number of nonprofits, including the Odyssey School, the Denver School of Science and Technology, and Democrats for Education Reform Colorado. Van will be writing about education standards, whether early-childhood-education programs deliver, and Denver's closely-watched and very expensive school board election.

Early-childhood education (ECE) is on fire in my home state, Colorado, and is a hot topic around the country. Colorado passed a law in this year's legislative session ensuring full-day kindergarten for all and is poised to dramatically expand ECE for Colorado's 4-year-olds in the 2020 legislative session, largely because of the leadership of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. 

Many of us that have focused exclusively on K-12 have begun to shift some attention to either end of the K-12 continuum, knowing how important it is for children to arrive in school ready to learn while having our high school graduates successfully transition to higher education and work. Foundations have also begun to shift investments toward each end of the K-12 spectrum.

Recent survey data from Grantmakers for Education showed 3 in 5 of those surveyed expected to increase their funding in ECE. The amount of public funding going into ECE has expanded by 17 percent since 2016. Employers are beginning to understand how important child care and ECE are, with about 20 percent of large employers providing child care in the workplace, according to a recent report by Early Learning Nation.

Many states, including Colorado, are expanding or trying to expand access to ECE programs by offering more spaces for different ages as well as going into early ages like 3-year-old programming.   

The research is clear that high-quality ECE programming leads to students' readiness to learn in kindergarten and beyond. Research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has shown the long-term social, educational, and economic benefits of ECE.  And it's important to note that these ECE benefits seem to be sustained or grow if students enter effective K-12 systems (which is why policymakers and funders should not take their eyes off of improving K-12 while they support more high-quality ECE).

No doubt it is far easier to get a student prepared for a quality K-12 education than to catch them up in the early-elementary years. And, with most families having each adult working, only 7 percent of families are "traditional," instead of one adult working and other in the child-rearing role, this means quality ECE and child care is essential.  

One of the essential questions for me is whether any ECE is worth the public investment if there is a minimum required to get quality that translates into learning?

Having previously run a quality preschool, I know it's a huge challenge without instructional materials (hard to do Montessori without the beads or pink tower), appropriately designed ECE classrooms, or paying for qualified ECE teachers. The current tuition for my former preschool in Boulder, Col., is about $20,000, and that does not include extra fees or child care before or after the "school" parts.

Research from RAND and others shows that the quality and associated costs of these programs make a huge difference in the impact of a program. The research seems somewhat unclear as to whether low-quality ECE programs have no impact, or even a negative impact, on some students depending on the program or particular group of students  .

In Colorado, now that we have joined the majority of states that provide full-day kindergarten (and spending on K is roughly the same as any other grade 1-12), our legislature will be contemplating whether they add ECE along with how they might structure more ECE programming. The costs being considered by some for this expansion are in the range of $300 million per year. It should be noted that $300 million is about one-third the per-student cost of what most consider a mediocre K-12 program cost per student in Colorado.

My big question is whether the expansion of ECE in Colorado or other states will be done right to ensure quality, or if it will just be enough funding to expand seats with little ability to create quality?

What happens in those communities that do not have the resources to provide quality ECE for any child that needs the program? Denver does it by creating an innovative sliding-scale preschool voucher for every 4-year-old, supported by a sales tax.

The latest summary from the National Institute for Early Education Research shows that ECE has been growing over time, with about 33 percent of 4-year-olds and about 6 percent of 3-year-olds in ECE, even though the funding has stalled or decreased in some places. According to the RAND Corp., the United States is ranked 33rd in spending on ECE out of the world's 36 most developed nations.

While much of the interest in expanding ECE is good news, there seems to be little understanding and even less willingness to pay for quality ECE.

I was curious how much early-education teachers were paid in comparison to a few other jobs. Here's the chart showing the latest hourly-wage comparison data for Denver, using data from school district salary schedules and Indeed.com.

Van chart blog 2.jpg

Will these programs result in increased literacy and high school graduation rates when the research from RAND and others shows there is great variability in the return on investment for various programs?

I have to wonder what's in the future for the ECE sector when dog walkers get paid 13 percent more than ECE teachers. And do not forget the fact that most ECE teachers do not have the most basic health-care coverage.

I applaud Colorado's governor, Jared Polis, and our legislative leaders' efforts to expand ECE programming across Colorado in the next few years, but I worry that Colorado, like many states, will do it on the cheap, expecting teachers without health-care coverage or a living wage to prepare our youngest children for the enormous challenges that they will face this century. I am hoping that there is more attention paid to the details of how to do ECE in Colorado and that other states decide to expand public education beyond kindergarten.

— Van Schoales

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