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Investing In Early Education

A Peace Corps buddy and his wife visited recently. They had lived in Hawaii at the beginning of his career as a journalist, a time when my wife and I and the young couples of our acquaintance lived in rented garages or basements around town. Their garage was in Manoa, ours in Kahala, both nice neighborhoods, but garages nonetheless.

Another couple joined us for dinner, a Hawaii businessman and his wife who we’d met a couple of times over a period of many, many years, but didn’t know all that well. Early in the conversation, the topic turned to the early childhood education proposals of President Obama and Gov. Abercrombie. Said the businessman: “Early childhood education is nothing but glorified baby-sitting,” or something to that effect.

I thought my wife, the high-strung Filipina, was going to leap across the table and tear the poor man’s throat out. She didn’t, of course, but she made clear to him that as a veteran of 34 years of teaching in Leeward Oahu schools, she knew something about the disadvantages faced by kids who arrived in kindergarten without the preparation provided preschooled children of the upper middle class. Boy! Did she make it clear.

I wasn’t a child of the upper middle class; lower middle or upper lower describe it better. My brothers and I had the benefit of neither preschool nor kindergarten. Still, we did all right in school, graduated, went to college and graduate school, held jobs.

And I admit that I once shared the opinion of our unfortunate dinner companion. Why do kids need “school readiness” in the form of preschool for all 4-year-olds? “Readiness” for kindergarten, where kids nap and play most of the day? Come on. Give me a break.

My generation had more than our share of breaks: stay-at-home mothers, for example; fathers who could support a family of five on one income (in my father’s case, that of a butcher); and a burgeoning post-war American economy that provided employment for practically everyone who made it through high school.

Those days are gone, of course. In Hawaii, the stay-at-home mom became nearly extinct long ago. It requires at least two incomes to make a family go, and single mothers plus alimony have become as common as mom-andpop households.

In 2013 America, it takes far more than a village to raise and educate a child, and those first five years of a child’s life are crucial. As the proponents of early childhood education are quick to point out, “85 percent of brain development occurs from birth to before the age of 5.” In preschool, a child learns “to share, wait one’s turn, work with a partner and become a confident, independent individual (capable) of succeeding in kindergarten and beyond.”

It’s that “beyond” that worries those who must balance budgets. In his State of the State speech last month, Abercrombie argued that “Investing in our children’s early years of life will pay dividends down the road in the form of healthy and contributing adults, reduced crime and incarceration, crime costs and less dependency on social services.”

How big are the dividends? Early childhood education proponents argue that “$1 invested today generates $4.20 in future savings and increased earnings for Hawaii.”

“Savings and increased earnings” several decades into the life of a child seem like a hard sell to electorates and governments still wrestling with an economic recession. Yet 39 of the 50 states have instituted early childhood education for 4-year-olds.

It’s our turn.