Students enrolled in a state-funded pre-kindergarten program in North Carolina were far less likely to be placed in special education by the third grade than their peers who were not, a new study from Duke University has found.
The study used data for 871,000 children collected over the last 13 years regarding students enrolled in the state’s More at Four preschool program. These students were 32% less likely, researchers found, to need special education. Children who were involved in Smart Start, a child and health services program for low-income families, were 10% less likely to be placed in special education by the same age. Combined, the programs led to a 39% drop in special education placements.
While not being moved from standard classrooms into special education offers some direct advantages for students, the researchers focused particularly on the financial impact that early childhood education programs could have on strained educational budgets by reducing the costs of special education programs.
“It shows a level of benefit not only in academic terms but also financially, because special education services are so expensive,” said one of the report’s authors, Clara G. Muschkin, as quoted in coverage from the Washington Post. “This gives policymakers useful evidence that investments in early childhood education are a source of significant cost savings for the state.”
The study, authored by Muschkin, Helen F. Ladd and Kenneth A. Dodge, has been published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
Financial Payoffs, Social Gains
This is far from the first study demonstrating that high-quality early education has financial, as well as social and educational, benefits.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has found that early investments in education for low-income children pay off both for those children individually and society as a whole. Heckman and his colleagues put an estimated return on investment in the ballpark of 14% — a return better than what is generally seen on the stock market, he often points out.
Many educational policy experts see this financial aspect of the early education debate as ground that can unite the goals of liberals and conservatives.
As Post writer Emily Badger detailed Feb. 2 in an article explaining “why conservatives should get behind Obama’s push for universal Pre-K,” early education can reduce crime rates and reliance on government support systems. “If you don’t want to spend a lot on incarceration, welfare or Medicaid,” she explained, “you should spend money on preschool.”