The good news out of this year’s Legislature was its allotment of $30 million for full-day kindergarten, increasing the number of Nevada schools that will have it from 124 to 201. We’ll also spend $50 million per year from 2013 to 2015 on measures to reduce kindergarten class sizes. For a cash-strapped state, this may seem like a lot of money—to some, it may even seem like a waste. Truth is, it probably isn’t enough.
That’s because a front-end investment in education (i.e., during early childhood) yields huge back-end gains (i.e., graduation from high school). A much-discussed 2011 study showed that children who are not proficient in reading by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than children who read at or above grade level—and 13 times more likely if they live in poverty.
And making sure kids graduate reduces the future burden on taxpayers. A 5 percent increase in male high-school graduation rates could save Nevada $56 million in annual incarceration costs and crime-related expenditures, estimates James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economics professor at the University of Chicago. The fact that only 60 percent of Clark County students currently graduate from high school means we end up paying more down the line.
How does early childhood education make such a difference? In preschool, children learn to sustain their attention, and they develop emotionally and socially—key indicators of success later in life. The disparity in access to pre-K programs between the wealthy and the poor is why President Barack Obama, in his most recent State of the Union address, called for making preschool available to every 4-year-old in America.
“One of the most effective strategies for economic growth is investing in the development growth of at-risk children,” Heckman writes in a brief on early-childhood education in Nevada. “Short-term costs are more than offset by the immediate and long-term benefits.”