Geoff Johnson: Preschool education pays off in long run

Victoria School District trustees are to be congratulated on their decision to set aside, for now at least, the proposal they received from staff that would have seen prohibitive increases in rent for facilities being used as early-learning and care centres.

The delay in a decision about what to do about a $155-million maintenance deficit will provide trustees time to review, in some detail, the overwhelming amount of evidence that, as a major study from Rutgers University concludes, well-designed preschool education programs produce long-term improvements in school success.

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Those enhancements include higher achievement-test scores, lower rates of grade repetition and generally higher educational attainment.

Of all the budget reduction options, preschool should be hands-off.

There is overwhelmingly strong evidence that suggests that not only economically disadvantaged children but all children reap long-term benefits from a preschool experience.

An article by W. Steven Barnett and Jason T. Hustedt in the influential journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development describes preschool as “the most important grade.”

The authors quote a boatload of research supporting the long-term benefits of preschool experiences.

The consistency of these data-based studies confirmed that preschool education is a sound investment — academically, socially and economically. There is compelling evidence that academic and other benefits from preschool education can yield economic benefits that far outweigh any costs associated with intensive, high-quality preschool programs.

These studies identified several long-term economic benefits of early education, finding that both preschool participants and taxpayers can benefit from public investments in preschool education.

But other researchers point out that the advantages of preschool programs will only be fulfilled if educators and planners take on the task of developing and implementing sound policy to support what the research is telling them.

True, this challenge will require greater accountability, and increased public funding, but so be it if the eventual advantages to children far outweigh the immediate difficulty of finding the dollars.

When facilities such as school buildings have outlived their usefulness as K-12 accommodation, and unless there are plans to seek ministerial permission to sell those properties (a shortsighted bet against future needs), it seems reasonable to make those properties available for wider educational use.

If that means a loosening of the restrictions on transferring a minor operating surplus to capital maintenance needs, so be it.

Early learning and care environments should, given the abundance of supportive research, top the list of budget survivors, given the community benefits from such a move.

After all, the money for operating and capital maintenance all comes out of the same pocket — the taxpayer’s.

Ontario is one province that provides full-day early learning for four- and five-year-olds in the justifiable belief that an early start on education encourages the development not only of problem-solving abilities, but also the socialization that becomes increasingly important as children progress through the grades.

As children learn and play together, speaking and communication skills lead to a smoother transition to listening and writing skills.

Of course, not everybody agrees, and preschool opponents say it is more important for children to bond as much as possible with parents throughout the early years.

In a different time, that argument might have had legs, but in 2017, it assumes that parents are available during the day to interact with their children, which is increasingly unlikely in an economy that demands that both parents have jobs.

The burden experienced by single parents trying to make ends meet is rendered unbearable when fees for daycare are so high as to make the programs inaccessible to everyone except those with a healthy assured income.

In fact, accessible early-childhood learning care has been found to be especially helpful for low-income families, because it can propel generations of children toward increased earnings, better jobs, improved health and more education.

As mentioned above, the argument can be made that supporting parents with the provision of affordable early-learning care is not really a school-district responsibility, yet numerous studies show that of any social or educational policy aimed to help families, struggling and otherwise, support for high-quality care has the biggest educational and economic payoff for parents, children and the community.

With an election imminent, a “families first” government might win some needed support by assisting school districts to operate redundant facilities to the benefit of families.

 

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

gfjohnson4@shaw.ca

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