ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There is remarkable agreement among New Mexico’s public officials, business leaders, educators and nonprofit leaders that the best time to improve children’s lives is before they are born.
There is widespread agreement that home visiting programs by trained specialists with expectant mothers, followed by visits with the family and its newborn children, followed by early educational opportunities for the youngest children, would help kids thrive in school and prosper as adults. That in turn would help lift families out of our state’s cycle of poverty.
The question is, why do we believe it, since there isn’t much evidence to show which New Mexico-based programs are doing the most good?
Some of the holes in our knowledge are about to be filled. In a matter of weeks, the Rand Corp. will report on its five-year evaluation of home-visiting programs funded by United Way of Santa Fe County. United Way CEO Katherine Freeman, in an interview, could not go into details but said Rand seems to be pleased with the results.
This squares with anecdotal evidence. When I’ve asked people who work to improve child well-being which agencies seem to be doing things right, United Way of Santa Fe County has always been on the list.
The lack of local evidence is partly because many of New Mexico’s programs are relatively new. State government was on track to spend about $200 million on early childhood programs in the last fiscal year, but spending was half that just three years earlier. An earlier Rand study also found that some programs outside Santa Fe had never set up adequate mechanisms to monitor their own performance.
Our confidence, and, indeed, the confidence policymakers nationally have in the value of early childhood education and support springs from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Arthur J. Rolnick, the bank’s director of research, began publishing some highly influential papers beginning in 2003 arguing that early childhood development, which in economic terms constitutes an investment in human capital, was essential to economic development. Rolnick was responding to a decline in Minnesota’s economic outlook that was being blamed on everything from the relocation of corporate headquarters to threats by professional sports teams to move. The solutions being offered included investing huge sums in sports stadiums and subsidizing private businesses to keep them in Minnesota.
Rolnick demonstrated that the return on those investments was trivial compared with the return that comes from investing in people, especially children. Since then, Rolnick, now with the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, has conducted extensive research that has only bolstered the economic case for early childhood support.
One study that tracked children from poor and vulnerable families over more than 30 years found that children in high-quality early education and home-visiting programs needed less special education than kids who didn’t receive the extra support, were less likely to be retained in first grade, were more likely to be literate in sixth grade, were more likely to be employed as adults, and committed crimes at half the rate of people who didn’t get early childhood support.
That’s the social case for early childhood support. Rolnick makes the economic case. He calculated that the public received an 18 percent return on its investment in early childhood programs, which, as he said in a 2013 interview, is “enormous.”
“If the private sector saw an investment that was returning 18 percent, it would not go unfunded for very long,” he said.
About the time Rolnick was writing his first papers, United Way of Santa Fe County was looking for a new direction. The charity raised about $1 million a year that it distributed to local nonprofits, but that wasn’t a lot of money in the scheme of things, Freeman said. Meanwhile, school performance, child poverty rates, health status and other measures of childhood well-being were not improving. Rolnick’s work and other studies convinced United Way that early childhood programs were what the county needed.
Freeman agrees too many programs can’t demonstrate that they’ve done any good, but United Way of Santa Fe County is fanatical about measuring what it is doing. Early childhood education programs that it’s funding, for example, have improved several indicators of academic success by 81 percent among enrolled children.
Promising childhood programs are in place all over the state. If Rolnick is right, if we are disciplined enough to fund the best of them, if we get the data we need so we can know which are the best of them, and if we are patient and persistent, the return on our investment in the form of a more prosperous state will turn up soon enough.
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