When I first started here at the AJ Fletcher Foundation, I would spend Friday mornings digging through old records. From meeting minutes to tax forms, it was a way for me to become familiar with the organization. During one of these forays into our basement, I came across 50 copies of Time magazine from the 1990s. On the cover was a picture of a baby and a light bulb. The cover story detailed some of the advances in brain science that underscored the importance of early learning.
Our foundation has always taken an interest in supporting children, so clippings from a magazine that discusses the importance of early learning wouldn’t necessarily be an unusual thing to find in our archives. But 50 copies? It was odd enough for me to ask our board chairman, Jim Goodmon, about it:
“At the time I was the first chairman of North Carolina Smart Start. We were trying to convince everyone the value in providing enrichment to kids before they got to school. I read this article in Time magazine and it blew me away. The latest science was confirming what we were doing. If you want to change the trajectory of kids’ lives, you have to start early. So I went around town and bought up all the copies I could find. I started handing them out at meetings, to policy makers, teachers, nonprofits… everywhere I went.”
What Time magazine and Jim were sharing 20 years ago has been reinforced by decades of research since. High quality early learning can have a tremendous impact on kids. This is particularly true when it comes to kids from impoverished backgrounds.
Early childhood education results in an increased likelihood of graduating high school, improved standardized test performance, reduced grade repetition, and reduced special education placement. It leads to an increased likelihood of having health insurance and full-time employment, increased educational attainment, increased future lifetime earnings, increased financial stability, increased likelihood of homeownership, reduced likelihood of being arrested or going to jail, reduced likelihood of abusing drugs, and reduced likelihood of receiving food stamps. And the list goes on (not to mention the workforce benefits for parents, particularly women).
All of this is to say that there are clear demonstrated public sector savings in the short- and long-term when children have access to high quality early childhood education. Several studies have estimated a 7:1 return on investment in universal preschool, while other studies have found even higher returns (the Perry preschool program in Michigan and Chicago Child-Parent center study are some of the most notable). It is very clear that early childhood education is a strong economic investment in our society’s future.
But beyond the data, I want to emphasize simply that this matters. It’s really, really important. At Fletcher Foundation, we strongly believe that all children deserve a fair shot at a good life. Early childhood education is one way to come closer to leveling the playing field so that all children have opportunities to thrive.
This is difficult, challenging work, but with everything going on in the world today, there is no better time than now to work towards providing equitable opportunities for the future of our society.
I hope that, 20 years from now, when someone else is going through the Fletcher archives, they’ll come across those old Time magazines, and perhaps a few clippings from the year 2020, and they’ll talk about how successful we’ve been.