Can Focusing on Cost-Benefit Analyses Make Us Forget Pre-K’s True Benefits?

Last week I wrote a piece questioning the viability of Social Impact Bonds as a funding mechanism for pre-k programs. Today, UNC’s Duke Professor* Kenneth Dodge has a strong piece arguing for the merits of social impact bonds. To be clear, I agree with Dodge and others, that social impact bonds have real promise as a strategy for funding public investments and interventions that produce significant savings. But the areas where social impact bonds have shown greatest potential–housing first programs that reduce medicaid and other social service costs, recidivism prevention programs (although they’ve also experienced their share of troubles), and prenatal investments that reduce the need for high-cost neonatal care–all produce public savings that are much more immediate, automatic, and easily measured than those produced by pre-k.

More broadly, I am concerned that an emphasis on the cost savings produced by pre-k programs can actually undermine our understanding of the real value of pre-k. Research shows that pre-k saves the public and society at large significantly over the course of a child’s lifetime by reducing the need for special education and grade retention, increasing high school graduation and educational attainment for preschool alum, increasing their earnings (and hence taxes paid) as adults, and reducing costs related to criminal behavior, public dependency, teen childbearing, and other negative outcomes in adulthood. These are all great things. And the recognition that pre-k makes smart economic sense long-term has boosted pre-k support among business and economic types who no one would mistake for bleeding heart liberals.

I’m concerned, however, that arguments that “pre-k pays for itself” send a troubling message that pre-k merits public funding only if it generates savings to taxpayers and government that outweigh the costs of pre-k investments. Savings to government are not the primary reason for investing in pre-k. They’re a side benefit. The reason to invest in pre-k is because it benefits children–both in the near term, through improving the quality of care and learning they experience today, and in the long-term, by improving their educational and life outcomes–and that these benefits advance both our national economic competitiveness and equity for disadvantaged youngsters. These benefits are worth having even if they never generate savings to taxpayers worth more than their initial cost. In reality, government spends money on a lot of things–medical care for the elderly, special education services for severely cognitively impaired children, protection of endangered species–where there is no argument that these activities produce government savings that exceed their costs. Rather, we spend money on these things because  we believe they are the right thing to do and/or because they produce benefits to the beneficiaries–particularly to the most vulnerable in our society–or to society at large that we as a society believe are worth asking others (i.e. taxpayers) to pay for.

Expecting pre-k programs to “pay for themselves” is both an unfair double standard and one that sells short the true value of pre-k for children, parents, and society as a whole. It also may not be the political winner proponents think: The cost-benefit case for pre-k is compelling to green eye shade types, but securing the public and political will to make quality early childhood education a reality for all children who need it will also require engaging Americans on an emotional level. That means convincing people that quality care and learning experiences make a meaningful difference in children’s and families’ lives; that these types of experiences are something that all children deserve; and that providing quality care and learning–at least for the most disadvantaged youngsters–is crucial to living up to our national self-conception as a morally good nation and a nation of opportunity. Economic arguments are all well and good. But we should never be ashamed to make the moral and emotional case for preschool as well.

*Due to sloppy reading on my part, this post initially identified Dodge as a professor at UNC, rather than Duke. While I fully own this error and apologize for the grievous offense it may have caused to both Professor Dodge and any Duke or UNC fans reading this article, as an SEC alum, I do not think I can reasonably be expected to tell those ACC schools apart.