Cosman: Federal investment in education a welcome change

A key pillar of President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address delivered on Feb. 12 was Obama’s proposal for a universal early education program. The policy proposal brought with it a welcomed discussion of federal education spending, one that is long overdue. In order to confront the United States’ low education performance, the nation must be prepared to commit its extensive resources to the problem. That the president at least appears to be ready to do so is a promising start.

The plan put forth by the White House for an expanded national pre-Kindergarten program will, undoubtedly, not come cheap. Though the president said during his address that none of his proposals “should increase [the] deficit by a single dime,” the outline released for his early education program promises to “extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low and middle-income 4 year olds from families at or below 200 percent of poverty.” 

The pre-K programs already in place at the state and local levels, and upon which the Obama administration plans to base its national program, are indeed expensive. One study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found program costs ranging from $3,000 to $9,000 per student with some as high as $19,000 per student to get the program up and running.

This pre-K expansion comes at a time when federal education spending figures are troubling, to say the least. For 2011, the federal government spent just 2 percent of its budget on education, compared to 20 percent for defense. The government spends 6 percent alone on interest on the national debt. 

Far more of the government’s budget is spent on programs for the elderly – 20 percent of the budget goes to Social Security – than on children. A report by the Urban Institute found that “an elderly person receives nearly $7 for every dollar received by a child.” National spending on education is disproportionally low.

And the numbers are only expected to get worse. Despite already spending a low portion of its budget on children, the same Urban Institute report found that “federal outlays on children will fall as a percentage of the budget (from 10 to 8 percent)” over the next 10 years, with most of that drop coming from education spending, which will be “further reduced in 2013 due to the discretionary caps under the Budget Control Act.”

Obama’s proposal seems to be an attempt to reverse these negative trends. The promises in the released White House outline that “investment in the federal Head Start program will continue to grow” and that “[federal] funds will support states as they ensure that children are enrolled in high quality [pre-K] programs” indicate an administration prepared to spend the necessary amount to salvage a floundering U.S. education system.

A quality early education program is the place to start. By laying the foundation early, the U.S. government leaves itself better off in the future. Students enrolled in pre-K programs are far more likely to succeed later in school than those not enrolled. Economist James Heckman places the societal return on investment for these programs at around 7 percent. Though the initial investment may be high, the overall benefits outweigh the costs.

With federal education spending already low and projected to fall even lower, the U.S. is at risk of falling even further behind in student performance. The federal government needs to take action to address the current state of education funding and put forth a plan to revamp the way it allocates its budget. On Feb. 12, the president took a step in the right direction.