Michigan, learn the lessons of early childhood

There are two approaches to justify initiatives in public policy: arguing from assertions of morality and reasoning from return on investment.

The former method is by far the most common in today’s discourse. It’s relatively easy to do and comforting, as well, to wrap one’s preferences in the gauzy warmth of moral principles. And in some cases -- the civil rights movement in America, for example -- the moral case is so overwhelming as to lock in the public mind the basis for policy.

More commonly, one man’s morality is another’s heresy. Right-to-lifers argue passionately that abortion is intrinsically evil, as it involves the taking of a life. Pro-choice advocates assert, just as passionately, that to deny a woman choice in her reproductive rights is just as repellent. Over the years, moral philosophers have parsed these arguments, pro and con, endlessly … and without much social effect.

And arguments based on moral assertions have a strange way of winding up with unintended consequences. In the run-up to the Great Recession, policy-makers in Washington argued that the moral imperative of increasing homeownership as widely as possible ultimately wound up in banks issuing rafts of sub-prime mortgages that precipitated the ultimate loss of homes for millions.

Often it’s smart to take a hard-headed assessment to tease out the rate of return on social investments as a method of choosing between policy alternatives.

There is no better example of this latter approach than home visitation programs aimed at infants and toddlers and schooling enrichments for pre-kindergartners.

That’s the intellectual basis for an important report released last week, “Detroit’s One-Child School Readiness Dividend,” sponsored by the Max & Marjorie Fisher Foundation. Research was carried out by Wilder Research, a firm in St. Paul, Minn.

The study reaches the eye-widening conclusion that taxpayers will save $100,000 over the lifetime of every vulnerable Detroit child who is helped by early childhood programs to be fully ready to enter kindergarten at age five. For the average Michigan child, the savings amount to $39,500.

The study traces the individual benefits obtained -- and social costs avoided -- as a result of early childhood programs focused on at-risk children ages 3-5.

An at-risk child who goes to preschool and can succeed in kindergarten through third grate has increased enormously her chances of success in life. She is far more likely to graduate form high school and college; have a successful marriage, be a good parent; and enjoy increased income. The study says a child who goes to preschool will early $13,081 more than one who doesn’t.

Conversely, the child who goes to preschool is far less likely to wind up in prison or poverty -- and less likely to end up on welfare or some other expensive social program.  He is less likely to cost taxpayer money for special education programs and for repeating grades in school. And he is far less likely to criminally victimize others.

It’s the combination of benefits and costs that add up, year by year, that make the case for investing in early childhood programs so compelling. Earlier studies indicated that the rate of return for early childhood programs such as Head Start range from 7-to-1 to 14-to-1. Now the Fisher Foundation study suggests the rate of return is even higher.

Michigan spends something like $13 billion on K-12 schools, but only $200 million to $300 million on early childhood programs. Diverting some of the money we now spend on K-12 to pre-K programs would amount to not much more than a rounding error -- and the return on investment would be substantial.

I’ve known Phil Fisher, president of the Fisher Foundation, for years. He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s a committed citizen of our state. And he describes himself as an “unreconstructed capitalist." What that means, to him and to many others who would rather use hard-headed return on investment as the criterion for making public investments, is that there is a powerful dollars-and-cents case to be made for investing in programs like early childhood that bear such powerful returns.

Fisher also is on the board of an outfit called Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan*, a group of business leaders who reason the most cost-effective way of obtaining a skilled, competitive work force in Michigan is through early childhood programs. They’re in the process of gearing up a powerful list of business endorsers who are interested in the ROI (return on investment) for early childhood programs.

His foundation’s important study demonstrates it’s far better to justify public policy by hardness of the head than by assertions, no matter how passionate, of gauzy morality.

* The Center for Michigan, Bridge's parent organization, is a member of the Children's Leadership Council.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Rob Fowler
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 10:00am
Well said and well argued Phil...as usual. This is an important policy area that has the potential to be a true strategic investment as the state gets back on its feet.
Tue, 05/01/2012 - 10:27pm
"There are two approaches to justify initiatives in public policy: arguing from assertions of morality and reasoning from return on investment" Mr. Power may be too narrow in his thinking or may want to have more control of how people act. Rather then government through public policy establishing mority for the public or even the efficiency of the public should decide. Could there be a thrid approach; informing the public of what is working best and sharing how they might apply it. The rules such as that as not crossing the double line or not runing a red light are neither morality of efficiency, they are simply an example of what effectively works for the masses. Similarly, rather than simply saying that education starts at the womb and it is more efficient that the state/city start the 'education' the earlies the better, maybe it might be about describing what would benefit the kids the early on. I have to admit I had to learn this as a parent, but what I did spoke so loudly that my kids couldn;t hear what I said. If the parents better understood how they could do things to help their kids prepare for learning and to practice those things 24 hours a day, at least to my way of thinking, it would have more impact on what a state teacher could do with only a few hours a day. Especially if the teacher and the parents work doing things differently. Mr. Power seems not to trust the simply public, he prefers for the state to run things at the direction of these studies that take the parents out of the system and make it all about the state. Mr. Power only seems to hav confidence in the 'harness of head' of the state and their experts and leaves not room for the passion and abilities of the parents. What if the 'experts' are asking the wrong questions, coudl we be getting the wrong answers? Shoudl they be asking about what the state can or might it be better to be asking how and why kids succeed? If kids succeed before there was pre-school then why is pre-school the answer?