This week we saw on PBS Newshour an important installment in John Merrow’s continuing and exemplary pursuit of answers to what ails education in this country. Learning Matters, the nonprofit production company he founded traveled to Chicago where they visited homes with preschool-age children and visited an outstanding Educare program that serves kids from infancy to 5 years old. Along the way, Merrow interviewed Barbara Bowman who runs Chicago’s public pre-K program, once headed up the Erikson Institute, and is a NIEER Scientific Advisory Board. He also interviewed Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and Maria Whelan, president of Illinois Action for Children.
Bowman discusses the enormous costs of school failure and Merrow illustrates by cutting to a scene of young men entering a prison cell block. The cost of keeping them there? — $30,000 per year. Rauner says Educare spends about $19,000 per year per child, pointing out the potential return on that investment. She pointed to research showing that at-risk kids who attended the program for five years (at $95,000 per child) entered kindergarten as ready to learn as their middle-income peers.
There are 90,000 children in Chicago who need high-quality early education but the Educare Program Merrow visited serves only 149. Bowman describes to Merrow the dire budgetary straits in which Chicago’s much larger pre-K program finds itself. It serves 24,000 kids two and a half hours per day. When you add in all the kids in Chicago who attend Head Start and other public pre-K programs, the total comes to 37,000 kids served. In other words, says Merrow, Chicago spends about $5,000 per child on preschool for 40 percent of its neediest kids and nothing on the rest.
This picture could grow worse next year, says Bowman. Chicago used federal stimulus funds for pre-K and if that money isn’t replaced she’ll have to cut the number of children served by public pre-K even more. Merrow asks Whelan about making difficult choices in this economic environment, about spreading less funding over more kids or ignoring the needs of the many in order to serve the few. You will find her answer, and the analogy she uses, interesting. You can view the segment here: http://learningmatters.tv/blog/on-pbs-newshour/closing-the-vocabulary-gap-in-chicago-preschoools/5782/. American’s should not allow themselves to be forced into a “Sophie’s choice” because of all the other things that are given priority–corporate welfare, foreign wars, and tax cuts for the wealthy among them.
Where would Merrow find the money for pre-K? He presents a bold answer in his blog Taking Note. He proposes to eliminate 12th grade, and then suggests the even more unthinkable—eliminate subsidies for corn production. I take it his point is that people will have to come up with new ideas and fight tough political battles to wrest money for early childhood investments from powerful entrenched interests. Stay tuned for NIEER’s 2010 Preschool Yearbook to be released later this month where we will reveal which states have chosen to support new investments in children despite tough times and which have chosen to disinvest in young children.