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Doing the math: Why Alaska should invest in early childhood education during budget crisis

  • Author: Chris Tuck
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published February 14, 2016

Everyone is talking about numbers this session. Alaska's budget deficit is nearly $3.5 billion. The Republican-led majority threatens to cut an additional $1 billion from state government spending. More than $3 million is slated to be cut from early childhood education, which would decimate effective programs like Parents as Teachers, the Imagination Library and pre-K in Alaska.

Here are some more numbers: Alaska's current prison population is growing by about 3 percent per year. This means the state will soon need to invest about $300 million in a new facility to house the growing number of inmates and add at least $50 million to an operating budget we already can't afford.

Alaska currently has a modest pre-K program. If we implemented universal pre-K, it would cost about $6,700 per student per year. The average cost of housing an inmate in prison in Alaska is a whopping $57,670 per year -- $158 per day. The Department of Corrections costs the state more than $300 million and houses about 5,000 inmates per year. In contrast, universal pre-K could serve 10,000 Alaska children for $70 million.

High-risk youth who don't participate in early education programs are 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime. In addition, they are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a pregnant teen, and 60 percent more likely not to go to college.

Want more numbers? It is estimated about $2 billion could be gained by families as a result of putting their children through early learning services. Individuals who were enrolled in quality preschool education tend to earn around $2,000 more per month than those who were not.

Beyond numbers there are many benefits of early education. Students are better prepared when they enter kindergarten, meaning they are less likely to fall behind. This helps keep them out of costly remediation programs. Everything from graduation rates to literacy proficiency are improved for students who attend preschool or pre-K programs.

When it comes to investments, the research is clear and overwhelming. Minneapolis Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick and his colleague, Rob Grunewald, co-authored a paper touting pre-K as just about the best public investment a community could ever make. Their calculations show a return of up to 16 percent. Where else can an investment receive a return like that?

All of this is starting to add up.

Given our fiscal situation, it is important to make smart decisions going forward. We need to talk numbers. Eliminating early education investments increases prison populations by 39 percent. Paying for a person in prison costs nearly three times more per year than providing quality early learning.

This is just one example of how cutting early childhood education now is essentially the same thing as inflating the budget in the very near future.

There are positive ongoing effects from early learning opportunities. Students who succeed more get higher-paying jobs and tend to read to their children more, which then improves their children's education and so on and so forth.

Hundreds of studies support the benefits of early learning and reading to your children. That's why we need to continue the Imagination Library, Parents as Teachers and preschool.

Since we are looking for revenue generation in Alaska, we should invest in our greatest resource -- our children.

Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, represents District 23 in the Alaska House of Representatives.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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