Voices of Alaska: A low risk, high return investment

  • By Eric Wohlforth
  • Saturday, March 14, 2015 3:41pm
  • Opinion

We in Alaska accept that the state will invest millions and billions of dollars to develop resources for pay-off down the road. Consider the long-awaited gas pipeline, consider state incentives for oil exploration and new production.

A far more certain investment for future return is investment in early childhood education. Yet the House of Representatives has zeroed out about $3.2 million in funding for Best Beginnings, Parents as Teachers, and the Alaska Pre-K Program. Everyone understands all too well the budget crunch we’re in as a state. All of our spending should be scrutinized. It is early days to a final legislative decision. But the early education issue is too important to delay an objection. We must not sacrifice something with such obvious returns.

Study after study, confirmed by on-the-ground evidence in our own state, offer overwhelming evidence that early childhood efforts do work. Parents as Teachers, Best Beginnings, and high quality pre-K (a far cry from baby-sitting) prepare young children to succeed in school. Success in school leads to success in life.

We are way behind where we need to be in education at all levels. A major reason is our failure to develop the foundations for learning in our children:

— Fewer than half the children entering kindergarten in Alaska are prepared in all the ways experts say is important for success in school. It is no wonder our teachers struggle to get kids on track. Test scores languish when kids enter school so far behind.

— Alaska ranks 44th in the country for 4th grade reading levels and 51st in post-secondary attainment. How children fare on 4th grade reading tests is directly related to how ready they were to start school.

— Just 37.4% of our young adults in 2013 were enrolled in postsecondary education or had a degree.

— Alaska businesses frequently complain about the lack of local talent for jobs. That means Alaskans are missing opportunities for high paying jobs in leading sectors.

An overwhelming body of science and research tells us that investments in early childhood — such as in-home visits; exposure to plenty of high quality, age-appropriate books; lots of quality parent engagement; and high quality pre-K — reap concrete returns from cost savings and greater economic productivity.

Investments in early childhood save money in the schools by reducing the need for remediation, special education, and holding children back. Investments in early childhood save costs in the criminal justice system and welfare.

Investments in early childhood yield revenue in the form of greater productivity. With an educated and skilled workforce, Alaska will attract new business.

States in far worse financial shape than Alaska understand this. Across the country — from small-government Oklahoma to recession-devastated Michigan — states have found that investment in statewide voluntary pre-Kindergarten programs produce results in educational success, job development, and crime reduction.

Investments in early childhood should be measured against other investment opportunities. We make these decisions on four core criteria: need, amount of money involved, prospects for return on the investment, and risk. Spending on early childhood makes more sense than most. The need is huge, the amount is relatively small, the prospects for return are very high, and the risk of doing it is non-existent.

Early childhood is one of the lowest-risk, highest-yield investments we can make. The legislature should restore the $3.2 million funding for Best Beginnings, Parents as Teachers, and Alaska Pre-K back into the budget.

Eric Wohlforth was Commissioner of Revenue under Governor William A. Egan, 1970-1972, and Chair of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, 1997 to 1999 and 2002 to 2003. He is an attorney in Anchorage.

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