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Investment in early education endorsed

Money invested in improving early-childhood learning provides surefire economic benefits for communities and for businesses, an economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis said in Spokane Friday

Rob Grunewald, summarizing a study he prepared with colleague Arthur Rolnick, said improving programs that target disadvantaged families and focus on learning problems can produce returns of between $3 and $18 for every dollar spent.

The social and personal benefits range from higher achievement by students, more students finishing school, higher net earnings for families, and higher tax benefits and a stronger work force, Grunewald said.

He made the remarks at a meeting convened by Community-Minded Enterprises, Spokane County United Way, the Spokane Regional Child Care Initiative and Spokane County Domestic Violence Consortium.

On Friday those groups announced an initiative called Spokane Early Learning Mobilization, which is intended to strengthen programs to improve early-childhood learning.

Grunewald said the United States has begun to view childhood learning as more than a social issue.

“If you had just $1 to invest to improve the economy and had to pick where to spend it, the evidence suggests that it is with early-childhood development,” Grunewald said.

Researchers like Grunewald consider childhood learning as “the low-hanging fruit” since it’s an area with limited funding to date and strong potential benefits, based on the research he’s done.

Educators have said more than half of Washington’s preschool children are unprepared for learning when they enter kindergarten. Studies suggest that unless the situation is addressed by age 5, longstanding learning deficits will hinder the student’s choices and ability to succeed.

Washington legislators this year created the Department of Early Learning to target the problem. Among the programs being considered by the new state agency is a public-private initiative called Thrive by Five. That program, not yet adopted, would be fueled with a possible $90-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Greg Shaw, a director of Pacific Northwest programs for the Gates Foundation, attended Friday’s session and met with Grunewald afterward.

“Their work (by Grunewald and Rolnick) is the state-of-the-art. We ask them questions on this topic because we want to see returns. The Gates Foundation doesn’t just support wishful thinking,” Shaw said.

Grunewald highlighted four different research studies that tracked the impact of high-quality programs on the lives of young students and families. A 40-year study in Michigan tracked two groups, one that received early-childhood intervention and one that didn’t. Grunewald said the group getting help showed higher IQs, higher graduation rates, higher median incomes and fewer contacts with the criminal justice system.

Encouraging more young people to go to college is a policy goal communities should embrace as a development strategy, Grunewald said. “Twenty years ago the education premium for someone who got a college degree was 40 percent higher lifetime earnings than someone who had a high school degree. Today the premium is 70 percent,” he said.

As part of his own research in Minnesota, Grunewald helped calculate the investment needed to create an endowment that would pay an average of $9,000 per year to help each at-risk child in that state.

“The amount was equal to the cost of two sports stadiums,” or roughly $1.4 billion, he said.

Most policy planners say the solution is a collaboration of funding sources, including state dollars and local and business support, said Grunewald.

“A mix of investment sources is the way to go. That system allows the different groups involved to leverage their areas of interest and their strengths,” he said.