PERRY: Colorado’s funding full-day kindergarten is much more than kid stuff

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It wasn’t flashy or groundbreaking, but Colorado took a giant leap forward this month in improving the lives of thousands, reducing the cost of government and shoring up the shrinking middle class.

It’s all about kindergarten.

After the determination of Gov. Jared Polis and bi-partisan block of state lawmakers, Colorado now joins the league of modern states by funding free, full-day kindergarten for any family who wants it.

Hold your applause.

No doubt more than a few Colorado folks are surprised to find out Colorado didn’t already have free kindergarten built into the state public schools system.

Anyone familiar, however, with the fact that this state is always at or near the bottom of the list of states spending money on schools would hardly be surprised.

So it’s a big deal that state lawmakers honored a request by Polis to carve out about $200 million a year from now on to ensure every school district can offer full-day kindergarten for free to students.

Lagging teacher salaries, aging and inadequate schools and a dearth of money for throngs of students who can’t test at grade level will still go wanting, but all-day kindergarten won’t.

Districts like APS, which already spent money to offer full-day kindergarten, will now get to move some of those funds toward other needs.

Polis and lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, made the right call.

Study after study has shown that early childhood education, including kindergarten, has long-lasting benefits to the students, their families and everyone else in the state.

Students who receive early childhood education are more likely to stay in school, do better in school, finish school, go to college, get higher-paying jobs, apply for less public assistance and be less likely to go jail or prison.

Polis’ office said their research can even put a number on the benefits of full-day kindergarten. It’s $7.30. They estimate for every dollar spent on full-day kindergarten in Colorado, taxpayers get back $7.30 in the way of taxes paid and social problems eliminated or diminished.

They aren’t making it up or fudging numbers. Similar studies and estimates across the country have been selling the importance of early-childhood education for generations.

Just last week, a new development on an old study revealed amazing benefits.

One of the original U.S. early childhood programs was the 1960s Perry Preschool Project outside of Detroit, Mich. Original studies showed that poor children provided with quality early childhood education performed demonstrably better in school later on. It was part of the impetus for the national Head Start Program.

Recently, however, reviews and updates of that iconic research reveals that children of the students in the first study also benefited from that first generation getting pre-school education.

“For the first time, we have experimental evidence about how the case for early childhood (education) propagates across generations,” Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman told reporters last week, according to the Chronicle of Social Change.

“Not only is there the first-generation effect on the treatment group, but also there’s a second-generation effect.”

He and others have repeatedly told political and education leaders that investing in school early and then often pays society back severalfold.

“Make no mistake — poverty is not caused by a lack of character among the poor,” Heckman said in a statement, “but rather by society’s failure to provide the proper resources and environments for developing character skills that promote success in life.”

Consider that the average state “welfare” payment is about $6,000 year.  Medicaid costs taxpayers about $7,000 a year per person. Food stamps are about $1,200 per person. One year in prison costs taxpayers about $40,000.

It’s easy to see why investing about $8,000 for a year in kindergarten pays off.

Heckman, a serious go-to guy on a range of economics issues, points out a serious problem when it comes not just to funding kindergarten, but public education in general: Poverty is rarely a choice, and, despite a prevailing “welfare queen” mindset of many elected leaders, being poor has to do with money and race, not temperament.

The righteous thing to do is to dramatically increase education resources for those students, often poor, who need more to catch up to their wealthier peers.

But for those who think that poor kids struggling in school isn’t their problem — so just pave the damn roads — it is their problem.

Despite being the right thing to do, investing more in public education is the fiscally sound thing to do, too.

The more successful anyone is in school, the less likely it is that the state and local communities will be spending tax dollars on or for them for the rest of their lives.

It’s not just kindergarten Colorado just agreed to invest in, it’s all of us.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]