How investing in paste and crayons can help save Detroit and other big cities

(freepik.com)
(freepik.com)

What will save Detroit and other ailing big U.S. cities? Here’s an idea from Conor P. Williams, a proud product of Michigan’s public schools, and currently a senior researcher in the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. This first appeared on the Shanker blog.

By Conor P. Williams

President Obama sent a veritable drawerful of his cabinet to Detroit last fall (and Vice President Joe Biden led a similar visit last month). While the Tigers were headed for the postseason, the big shots weren’t in town for a glimpse of quality baseball. Attorney General Eric Holder, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx were in the Motor City to brainstorm with state and local leaders on ways to use federal resources to spark — and hopefully speed — Detroit’s economic recovery.

While there are flickers of economic revival in the city, it’s hard to imagine that this conversation was wide-ranging enough to break the spiral. Is there an easy long-term recovery to be found in Detroit—or are its considerable problems the product of a fatally flawed economic development plan? There’s ample evidence for the latter.

Changing the city’s course will require much more than budgetary tweaks. It’s going to take a comprehensive rethinking of the area’s approach to education and economic opportunities. It’s going to require starting with the youngest Detroiters—and building a lasting foundation for economic growth.

It’s not enough to invest more resources in Detroit’s current model. With its tumbling population, crumbling infrastructure, shrinking tax base, and moribund economy, Detroit looks a prime contender for serial bankruptcy. Think US Airways. Think Donald Trump. Without a fundamental rethinking of the region’s economic situation, we risk throwing good money after bad.

Gloomy as this sounds, it’s not just a problem for Detroit and its surrounding environs. The Motor City’s (most) recent implosion isn’t just the product of local idiosyncrasies. Sadly, it’s symptomatic of big, structural challenges facing the entire Midwest. Detroit is just a sagging anchor on a sinking ship. Things are only marginally better in other Midwestern cities: the 2010 census showed that Detroit surrendered 25% of its population in just a decade. Cleveland lost 17%. Even Chicago, the Midwest’s cultural and economic capital, lost 7% of its population.

Without a substantive jolt, the Midwest’s future looks a lot like Detroit’s present. Changing that path is going to take a shift. How big does it need to go? Sell the Upper Peninsula to Canada? Offer collective manners tutoring to the East Coast?

Why not recover—and try—a great Midwestern idea? Invest in paste. And crayons. And construction paper, blocks, curricula, and especially teachers. Put it all together and they’d have top-notch early childhood education systems.

Don’t misread that last line. When politicians say something like “top-notch,” they usually mean “novel, but probably of middling quality.” That’s not what I mean. At all. When they say it, they mean Bud Light Lime—I mean Two-Hearted Ale. I mean extraordinarily good. I mean “let’s make this the top political priority” good. I mean “envy of the nation” good.

As it stands, much of the region is cutting taxes to make their states “friendly to business.” But as Chicago Council on Global Affairs Senior Fellow Richard C. Longworth persuasively argued in his 2007 book, Caught in the Middle, Midwestern states can’t realistically win an immiserating race to bare bones competitiveness against the developing world. They can compete in little arbitrage wars against each other—Kansas cutting its corporate tax burden to snag jobs from Missouri, for instance—but this “solution” only lasts until the next neighboring state responds with slashes in its rates or changes to its collective bargaining policies.

Cuts in worker benefits and wages work similarly poorly. Worse still, they depress consumer purchasing power and economic growth in the state (and region). This is especially true when workers are forced to use more of their income to compensate for shrinking benefits. Remember, Midwestern workers are also Midwestern consumers—and they can’t spend money they don’t have.

So why not try something else? The Midwest recognized the value of high-quality pre-K well before the rest of the country. In 1962, researchers began a study of the Perry Preschool Project, a two-year, high-quality pre-K program for low-income three and four-year-olds in Ypsilanti, Michigan. What they found was astonishing.

As adults, students from the program earned over 25% more as adults and used fewer welfare dollars than peers who did not attend the program. They were one-third less likely to be arrested. They also saved the state money while still in school: they were less likely to repeat a grade and more likely to graduate.

Cost-benefit analyses found that each dollar invested in the program returned something in the neighborhood of $7 in benefits and cost savings to society: more income for parents who can work while students are enrolled, more earnings when the students grow up, less spent on prisons, fewer students enrolled in remedial or special needs programs, and less spent on the social safety net when students grow up.

Even better: the results weren’t isolated. Numerous studies of other high-quality preschool programs across the country corroborate these results. Some show decreases in children born out of wedlock, lower percentages of students repeating grades during their K-12 years, and increases in high school and college completion.

It’s not just something in the Ypsilanti water (which is fortunate, given that the area’s longstanding industrial economy has given it a poor environmental reputation). The Chicago Public Schools’ Child-Parent Centers (CPC) program also shows outstanding returns—estimates suggest over $10 in returns for every $1 invested in running the program.

More tax revenue? Higher incomes? Fewer inmates? More college graduates? This isn’t just a policy no-brainer. This is one of the region’s greatest ideas.

Like any good manufacturing hub, the Midwest has exported its expertise throughout the country. Oklahoma has dramatically expanded its state pre-K programs since 1998; 75% of four-year-olds are now enrolled. Guess what? Their leaders were inspired by the Ypsilanti study. Washington, DC has ramped up its public pre-K programs over the last decade; 92% of four-year-olds and 69% of three-year-olds were enrolled last year. One of the key local figures in the expansion was a former lead teacher in the Perry program. Iowa has been expanding public pre-K for the last five years—state documents cite Perry and the CPC in support of their efforts. Georgia’s Department of Education does the same. Heck, the research is even an international export. In the 1990s, Quebec policymakers saw the Midwest’s programs and funded universal pre-K (and child care).

Meanwhile, Michigan has no state program offering preschool to three-year-olds. Only 19% of four-year-olds were enrolled last year, and that number hasn’t substantively changed in a decade. Indiana offers no state-funded pre-K at all. Ohio enrolls 1% of its three-year-olds and 2% of its four-year-olds in pre-K. In the region, only Iowa and Wisconsin enroll half of their four-year-olds—yet neither enrolls over 3% of their three-year-olds.

It’s not as though Midwestern leaders are ignorant of pre-K’s possibilities: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder toured the Ypsilanti program’s facilities with Education Secretary Arne Duncan this May. Snyder successfully pushed for a 60% budget increase for his state’s public preschool initiative this year. He’s promised to ask for additional investments in next year’s budget that would bring enrollment from just over 20,000 students in 2012 to nearly 66,000 in 2015. On this trajectory, Michigan would still only have about 50% of its four-year-olds enrolled in pre-K—far fewer than DC, Georgia, or Oklahoma. State Board of Education President John Austin summed it up nicely in February when he called Snyder’s proposal “a modest investment.”

Illinois, meanwhile, has an outstanding pre-K law on the books. As the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development puts its, the state’s “Preschool for All” program aims to “create and support voluntary, high-quality preschool for all three and four year olds.” Good as that sounds, it’s mostly vision at the moment. The program has never been adequately funded to make that goal a reality. In 2008, 31% of all Illinois four-year-olds and 20% of three-year-olds were enrolled. In 2012, those numbers were 28% and 20%, respectively.

Universal, high-quality preschool would be a legacy achievement for any politician. Even better, it would drive the region’s economic growth in the short- and long-term. It would make Midwestern states more attractive to young families: by supporting children’s growth, state programs would allow parents to develop their own careers. They would free parents to develop new, exportable ideas and products as part of a dynamic, growing economy. Most importantly, the research shows that these children would grow up to be better, more productive Midwestern citizens, workers, and consumers. That’s not just a great homegrown idea; it’s a sustainable long-term economic plan.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 14