There has been a lot of attention lately to rising education costs and how we fund education in Vermont. This is one of the most pressing issues we face. Our costs per student are one of the highest in the nation and our property taxes continue to increase beyond our capacity to pay. One indicator of the problem is that a record number of school budgets failed to pass on Town Meeting Day this year.
Quality education and the economy
At the same time, we know that a high quality education for our children is essential for productive citizens, healthy communities and a strong economy in Vermont. We must ensure that we have an educated and trained workforce if we are going to compete in the 21st century. We have an aging population in Vermont and we cannot afford to waste any of our human capital. So it is a value proposition; we must get a handle on school costs while maintaining the highest possible quality education for Vermont children.
An overlooked opportunity
There are many smart people working on this issue and many ideas being put forth on how to contain costs while maintaining quality. Reducing the number of school districts, charter schools, school choice, merit pay for teachers, and changes in school governance are among the options under consideration. I would like to suggest that we add one important opportunity to the mix: Invest wisely in early learning.
Education begins at birth
Informed by settled brain science, we now know education begins at birth. The foundation for academic and life success forms in a child’s earliest years. (Amazingly, 90 percent of a child’s core brain development occurs before the age of five.) The brain connections made during this time lay the foundation for a lifetime. The quality of a child’s early environment and experiences — while at home and while cared for outside the home for the 70 percent of Vermont parents with children under age 6 who work — are crucial in determining the strength or weakness of the developing brain’s architecture.
Investing early pays
Child and adult brains can grow and change throughout life, but it takes more time, effort and a lot more money to intervene, repair a weak foundation and rebuild later. Studies show children exposed to high-quality early care and education have better language and math skills, better social skills, and better relationships with classmates. These students score higher in school-readiness tests, are 40 percent less likely to need special education or be held back a grade, and are 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime by age 18. The research tells us that when we invest in education in the earliest years we receive the highest rate of return.
Recent Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke stated, “Early childhood programs are a good investment with inflation-adjusted annual rates of return on the funds dedicated to these programs estimated to reach 10 percent or higher. Very few alternative investments can promise that kind of return.”
Using resources wisely
So it makes sense that as we explore ways to get control of rising education costs while maintaining the best possible education for Vermont children, we would consider using our existing resources as wisely as possible. The future fiscal health of both Vermont’s economy and our communities depend on the success of a high quality education starting at birth. It’s not rocket science — it’s brain science.
Rick Davis of Stowe is president and co-founder of The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, www.permanentfund.org.