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Fenton: Preschool is a worthy investment

Patrick Fenton

As parents throughout Detroit and across Michigan register their children for preschool and kindergarten, I’m reminded of how much has changed in the way our society views early childhood education. Given how our region’s future success depends on its commitment to early childhood education, let’s hope these views continue to evolve.

In the 1960s only 10 percent of three and four year olds here in the United States were enrolled in preschool classes. Today more than 50 and 75 percent, respectively, are enrolled in early childhood programs. When my wife Laura and I founded Rainbow Child Care Centers over 25 years ago, preschools were seen by many as a babysitting service, providing working parents with a place where young children would be cared for while the parents made their living. In 2015 early childhood education was the leading educational initiative featured in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union and Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State addresses.

This support of early education by both the president and our governor should not come as a surprise. A variety of studies have been conducted over the last decade to determine the impact of early childhood education. Based on research conducted in 2013, on average, a third of a year of additional learning is achieved across language, reading and math by children attending preschool. The same research study indicates that the benefits of quality preschools outweigh the costs, with the cost-benefit estimates of preschool programs ranging from three to seven dollars saved for every dollar spent.

Ongoing research consistently points to the substantial impact of early childhood education on children and communities, and it’s promising to see the commitment our public officials have made through programs such as the Great Start Readiness Program right here in Michigan. It’s important for us all to recognize that our state’s return to national prominence depends on our ability to provide all of our children, all of our families, all of our communities with a chance to thrive.

Earlier this year President Obama called for making preschool more affordable for all,. suggesting the creation of a $3,000 tax credit per child, per year. While I don’t expect everyone to agree with that approach, it is important to recognize that providing every child access to a high quality preschool education is something that all of us should support, regardless of whether or not we have young children ourselves or plan to have children in the future.

The investment in education, both private and public, is a sound one. Each are important to our future, and while there is much emphasis on public funding for early education, we must combine this with the efforts of the private sector to truly reach all types of children who can benefit from high quality child care and early education. In the long term those investments can result in reduced spending for special education, child protection, welfare and criminal justice, among other things.

Like K-12 schools, today’s preschools look drastically different than their predecessors. At preschools, far more time is spent on academic instruction than in years past. Quality providers offer a curriculum that will engage and challenge young students, laying a critical foundation for continued learning in elementary school and beyond. Additionally, with a better understanding of the positive impact that good health has on learning, preschools have introduced initiatives promoting healthy lifestyle through physical activity and nutrition to maximize achievement.

While there has been great progress and tremendous support for early childhood education over the past several decades, there is still much work to be done. Ultimately, access to high quality early learning experiences for all our children is critical for each of us here in Michigan as we continue to claim our position as a leader in innovation, and a state where families want to raise their children.

Patrick Fenton is CEO of Rainbow Child Care Centers.