A previous post argued that improving early childhood education in the United States deserved recognition as a major issue, alongside other major issues such as global warming. The argument was that improving early childhood education in the United States would be a cost-effective and politically appealing way of encouraging broader-based economic growth in the United States, which would help political and social conditions for solving other important issues.
One key difference between early childhood education and other important policy issue is the ability to deal with these policy issues at the local level. Compared to issues such as global warming, early childhood education is an issue for which local action is much more feasible and desirable.
In Harvard professor John Donahue’s 1997 book on American federalism, Disunited States, Donahue outlines some key criteria for devolving authority for a public policy area to the states, rather than to the federal government. His summary statement is as follows:
“Do Devolve—Where It Makes Sense…Where states vary greatly in circumstances or goals, where external impacts are minor or manageable, where the payoff from innovation exceeds the advantages of uniformity, and where competition boosts efficiency instead of inspiring destructive strategies, the central government should stand clear.” (Donahue, 1997, p. 165)
For global warming, obviously one state government’s actions in reducing carbon dioxide emissions mostly has benefits for the rest of the world. External impacts are far larger than internal state benefits. Competition can lead to some states seeking to become pollution havens to gain some advantage in the competition for jobs.
For early childhood programs, as found in chapter 10 of my book, Investing in Kids, state-level economic development benefits of early childhood programs are two-thirds to three-quarters of their national-level benefits. The state-level benefits are clearly large enough for state-level action to make sense. Even at the local level, local benefits are not far below state-level benefits. A sufficient number of former child participants will stick around the state or local area as adults to boost local labor force quality and increase the area’s attractiveness to more and better jobs.
There are clear advantages of innovation in early childhood programs. We know something about what works in early childhood programs, in terms of reasonable class sizes and high-quality teaching and curriculum. But we need to know more. State and local areas should be experimenting with new ways of delivering and managing early childhood programs.
But how about competition among states in early childhood programs? Let me elaborate on that in a future blog post.