Preschool and state economic development: employers speak out

One of my Google News alerts came across this interesting story from Iowa.  Iowa is currently debating the future of its “Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program”, which currently enrolls over half of all Iowa four-year olds. The program is designed to move towards universal access for all four-year-olds, although school districts are allowed to have sliding scale fees for children from families who are ineligible for free or reduced price lunch.

The Iowa House of Representatives recently voted to eliminate funding for the program, and the debate has now moved to the State Senate. The Governor and some state legislators have discussed possibly replacing this universal program with a voucher system for preschool that would be more targeted to assist low-income children.

As part of this debate, on Monday January 24th the Iowa Senate Education Committee heard testimony from Elliott Smith, the Executive Director of the Iowa Business Council. The Iowa Business Council represents the state’s 20 largest employers.

According to a report from Radio Iowa, Elliott Smith, on behalf of the Iowa Business Council, took a strong position in favor of the state’s current universal pre-k program. He argued that Iowa’s current program was important for the state’s economic development, both long-term and short-term:

“The quality of Iowa’s education system has been a top priority for the Business Council for many years. It’s the graduates of this system from which our labor pool is stocked and replenished,” Smith said.

“Access to quality early childhood education should be available to parents of all Iowa children regardless of socioeconomic status — with no gaps.” According to Smith, state-funded preschool is a selling point when Iowa businesses are trying to lure employees to move here from other states.

These comments on behalf of the Iowa Business Council demonstrate that there is support from the business community for the notion of early childhood education as a key part of economic development strategies. Furthermore, this testimony provides some evidence that a state’s investment in universal pre-k can help tip location decisions in a state’s favor.

These arguments are consistent with the main point of my book Investing in Kids : a state or local government’s investment in high-quality early childhood programs can pay off in economic development benefits for a state’s economy, both in the long-run and short-run.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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