Selling our Children’s Birthright

Is Anybody Listening to Ben, David and Paul?

Anyone interested in our children’s future — and thus that of our nation — should be alarmed at the news coming from state houses and Capitol Hill these days. From Georgia to Iowa to Texas, governors are proposing to cut early childhood education in their efforts to reduce spending and the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed massive cuts to Head Start and education that will no doubt affect many young children and their families. Like Esau who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew, these political leaders are choosing a small immediate gratification over much larger future rewards, thereby sacrificing our children’s future.  Previously I have written in this space why, when it comes to education, austerity is a false cure for what ails our economy.  In recent days, three of the most respected minds in the nation have also sounded their concern over looming cuts to education.

This week, Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke urged state and local leaders not to short-change education as they address fiscal problems and zeroed in specifically on early childhood education. “Research increasingly has shown the benefits of early childhood education and efforts to promote the lifelong acquisition of skills for both individuals and the economy as a whole,” he said.

In recent days two of the nation’s preeminent columnists (from opposite sides of the political spectrum) added their voices to the call to spare education from the meat axe approach many politicians are taking to spending. David Brooks, the conservative columnist at The New York Times, said what many politicians have been unwilling to: “Trim from the old to invest in the young. We should adjust pension promises and reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most. Brooks described governors’ cuts to education as “thoughtless and destructive” and said Republicans in Congress are excusing the elderly while imposing budget cuts that would send early childhood programs off a cliff.

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman sounded a similar message in his recent New York Times column titled “Leaving Children Behind.” He zeroed in on Texas where Governor Rick Perry has proposed cuts that would deny an estimated 100,000 at-risk kids access to state pre-K. Krugman points to the abysmal 61.5 percent high school graduation rate in Texas and asks, “What’s supposed to happen when today’s neglected children become tomorrow’s work force?”

I do not for a minute downplay the severity of the fiscal crisis confronting the nation. It is severe. However, it must be addressed in a way that preserves the prospect of our future prosperity.—and that means investing in early childhood education. Doing so requires brand of leadership that seems in short supply these days. During the dark days of 1776, Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense saw the need to pen another pamphlet to encourage the populace to do the right thing in the face of dire threats to the republic. It was titled The American Crisis and in it, Paine wrote that it is surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. Yet, he said, panics are capable of producing “as much good as hurt” because “the mind soon grows through them and acquires a firmer habit than before.” Let’s make sure that habit includes putting productive investments in children’s early education at the top of our list of priorities.

Steve Barnett,

Co-director, NIEER

One Response to Selling our Children’s Birthright

  1. timbartik says:

    Thank you for drawing attention to this, Steve. I also linked to Ben Bernanke’s remarks at my blog. His remarks are particularly remarkable because he is quite a conservative economist. Dr. Bernanke chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.

    It also is quite apparent that even in the midst of fiscal crisis, states can choose to find significant resources for whatever they deem to be strategic priorities. For example, in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder recently proposed his budget for FY 2012 and 2013. Even though the state of Michigan faced a $1.4 billion deficit in its general fund for FY 2012, Governor Synder chose to make sufficiently large budget changes that he could both close that $1.4 billion gap AND also provide a $1.8 billion tax cut for businesses.

    Governor Snyder’s budget did preserve unchanged the state’s $110 million for state-funded pre-k. But he did not choose to expand the state’s investment in early childhood programs. For example, I have estimated that Michigan could move to universal pre-k for 4-year-olds for an annual cost of around $300 million, not all of which would have to be state money. Obviously if Michigan could afford a $1.8 billion business tax cut, it could afford $300 million to move to universal pre-k. It simply is a matter of priorities.

    I expand on this some in a post at my blog: http://investinginkids.net/2011/02/21/can-states-afford-now-to-invest-in-early-childhood-programs/

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