McAdams and Jensen: Wise investment in preschool

July 20, 2013
Author: Ben McAdams and Michael Jensen | Salt Lake Tribune

All of us want a bright future for our children. Every child should have the opportunity to achieve his or her potential — regardless of their zip code or economic circumstance.

Utahns have long recognized that educating our kids is an important responsibility. The Utah Constitution, in Article X, Section 1, requires "a public education system which shall be open to all children of the state."

Salt Lake County has traditionally supported programing for before-school and after-school care for children in grades K-12.

This past week, we proudly announced that Salt Lake County has now joined a first-of-its-kind partnership to help expand access for thousands of children to enroll in voluntary, high quality preschool.

Local and national data document that by investing in early childhood development as we are doing, county residents will receive an extraordinary return — far exceeding the return on most investments, private or public.

Granite School District has operated a structured, well-designed preschool program for the past five years. The district’s data tracks 15 classrooms of 300 children each year. They administered a standard preschool test to the 3- and 4-year-olds prior to beginning preschool. When the group reached third grade, they were given the standard test for their grade level.

The results were impressive; the academic achievement gap between economically disadvantaged children and their non-economically disadvantaged peers shrank dramatically.

Children, families, and the school district’s budget all benefited. Granite’s experience mirrors what the research shows across the country.

Studies document that a high-quality preschool program, with skilled early-childhood educators and a low student-teacher ratio, is a reliable predictor of future educational success.

At-risk kids who attend preschool are 1) more likely to graduate from high school; 2) less likely to use drugs; 3) less likely to be arrested for violent or property crimes; 4) more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and 5) twice as likely to be employed in a high-skilled job as adults.

Last month, United Way of Salt Lake announced the creation of the country’s first-ever "results-based financing" vehicle, designed to expand access to high-quality preschool in Utah. Private and nonprofit donors are loaning millions of dollars to finance the expansion. They also assume the financial risk, since — under the terms of the agreement — if educational savings fail to materialize, the loan does not have to be repaid.

Salt Lake County will contribute $350,000 — allowing an additional 600 children to be enrolled this coming school year. That will assist Granite District in reducing its 1,100-child waiting list.

For Salt Lake County, it’s also a case of where doing the right thing is also the fiscally responsible thing.

We analyzed our current budget costs for addressing substance abuse, county jail bookings, student delinquency, pediatric health, homelessness and other expenditures. High-quality preschool attendance delivers nearly $1.38 million annually in cost avoidance for Salt Lake County.

The country’s overall return on investment — in both budget and economic development — is nearly 14 to 1.

As stewards of precious taxpayer dollars, we would much rather invest $1 in a preschool class than $4 in a new jail cell.

We believe that this year’s expanded preschool program will continue to deliver on its promise.

Our hope is that the state of Utah will take note and consider adopting the voluntary preschool model statewide.

Ben McAdams is mayor of Salt Lake County; Michael Jensen is a member of the County Council.

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