On March 2, 2016

Education Reform: start earlier to yield better outcomes, reduce costs

By Rick Davis

The recent Picus report on Vermont’s education spending suggests the state can save money by reducing spending on special education. While I agree generally with that statement, we need new thinking about how we get there. Artificial spending targets or extra tutors aren’t the answer. If we want to reduce spending and improve the quality of our educational system, it’s time to change our lens and look to where learning truly starts: at birth. The investment we make during the earliest years of life (from birth to age 5) will provide a much greater return than any dollars we invest later.

The rising tide of education costs

The Picus report points out that special education costs are rising. Vermont’s Agency of Education reports that while the share of federal funding for special education stagnated between fiscal years 2001 and 2014, Vermont’s share of costs more than doubled from $137,789,654 to $271,185,794. In 2015, special education funding increased to $294,428,484. Outside of teacher salaries and benefits, special education costs represent a lion’s share of our school budgets.

Learning begins at birth

Am I suggesting that we save money by cutting these programs? Absolutely not! Special education programs serve our most vulnerable children. I am suggesting that we have an opportunity to make these services far more effective.

By identifying at-risk children earlier and starting intervention services earlier, we have the best opportunity to improve outcomes for our children and the greatest potential to reduce costs over the long-term.

Here’s why. From birth to age 5, a child’s brain is developing most rapidly, making connections and building a foundation for skills that will serve them for a lifetime. If we miss these most receptive stages of development, a child may find it more difficult to learn particular skills later.

Here are a few Vermont stats to put this in perspective:

Only 26 percent of Vermont children age 0 to 3 receive all three recommended developmental screenings by age three. We must change that.

Vermont ranks sixth in the nation for its high parental employment rate; 20,000 young children spend a portion of their day outside their home in a child care setting, yet only 24.1 percent of Vermont’s regulated care and education programs are designated as high quality programs (a 4- or 5-level rating in STARS or national accreditation). We must build quality into the early care and education system.

In 2013-14, less than half (49 percent) of Vermont children were deemed ready for kindergarten in all areas of health and development. High quality early care and education programs will ensure that more of our children are ready to learn.

A recent North Carolina study suggests that state-supported high quality early education programs can reduce special education costs and reduce the number of special ed placements, providing great cost savings to school districts. In the study, an investment of $1,100 per child (made during the early years) reduced third grade students’ odds of needing special education placement by 39 percent.

Early intervention will not eliminate the need for special education entirely, but studies have shown that starting these services earlier can make a difference. They can lessen the need for more intensive, and more costly, services later, or, in some cases, eliminate the need for special services altogether.

By providing high quality programs and services during the early, most crucial, years of development, we can ensure that all children receive the support they need to develop a solid foundation for their future cognitive, social and emotional development.

Strong communities and a healthy economy are based on the well-being and health of our children. If we want our children to be productive members of society as adults, we must invest in them while they’re young.

Rick Davis is co-founder/president of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children

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