It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of high-quality early childhood education.

According to research by the Brookings Institution, investing in a national program of high-quality universal preschool would add an amazing $2 trillion to the United States’ gross national product by 2080. As those well-prepared children grow up, finish school and enter the workforce, they will find better jobs and make more money – so universal preschool would generate enough additional growth in federal revenue to cover the costs of the program several times over.

In Illinois, early childhood education is an even better investment. In 2007, economist Robert G. Lynch took a close look at the potential costs and benefits of high quality pre-kindergarten programs in each state, and he found that these programs provide great benefits for children, their families and their communities. Children who spend two years in pre-K programs are less likely to need expensive remedial services once they get into elementary school. Parents of 3- and 4-year-olds are able to work more hours (and make more money) when their children are safe in a reliable, no-cost educational program, And studies show that early childhood education programs are associated with reduced family stress and less need for child welfare services.

As a result, Lynch found, a voluntary universal early childhood education program in Illinois would start to pay for itself within nine years, before the first group of children even reaches high school. By the time those children reach midlife, every dollar invested in Illinois’ early childhood education program would be paying back almost nine dollars in total benefits. And Illinois’ pre-K graduates and their families would reap $18 billion in increased wages over the program’s first 40 years.

But financial benefits can’t tell the whole story. Children who have access to high quality education programs during those critical early years are more likely to do better in school, to graduate from high school and to go on to college. Early childhood education programs also have been credited with lowering the risk that a child will turn to crime or live in poverty as an adult.

So when we invest in programs that bring children to kindergarten ready to learn and thrive, we are creating benefits that can last for a lifetime. That’s why Innovation Illinois believes that early childhood education – for all – is the strongest foundation for our state’s future prosperity.

At Innovation Illinois, we are very proud to live in the Land of Lincoln, and we believe our state is unsurpassed in many important respects. But there is one way we lead the nation that is deeply troubling – in our grossly unfair and inadequate funding of K-12 education.

When a group of leading researchers at the Education Law Center issued the National Report Card on state and local funding of public schools, they gave Illinois a solid F.

When it comes to the average dollar amount we spend on each public school student, Illinois is below average – $9,841, 27th in the nation, compared with the national average of $10,132 per child.

Illinois also gets a C in effort, at least when it comes to the slice of our state economic productivity that we devote to public K-12 education. Per person, our inflation-adjusted real gross domestic product is $43,378, higher than Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Iowa. Yet every one of those states spends a higher percentage of its GDP on public K-12 education than we do.

But the biggest problem – and the reason for our overall failing grade – is the unfair way we spend our education dollars, spending more money per child in wealthier school districts and squeezing school systems that are already struggling to educate large numbers of children from impoverished homes. Our unfair approach to funding high-poverty schools puts us in the same failing category as Alabama, North Carolina, and Texas.

We can’t expect to grow our economy and create new jobs without a strong, well-educated workforce. And we can’t expect children to rise from poverty and grow into hard-working, tax-paying adults if we don’t make smart, targeted investments in the school systems that are working to educate the kids who need help the most.

For the majority of tomorrow’s workers, a college education will be a necessity.

 Jobs in the new knowledge economy will require higher levels of skill and training. Even in manufacturing, which once employed millions of skilled workers with high school diplomas, employers are now looking for job applicants who are tech-savvy, with strong communication skills and problem-solving abilities. 

Yet soaring college costs are creating huge obstacles for young Illinoisans. From 1990 to 2010, the average cost for a single year at one of Illinois’ excellent public universities doubled, from $9,637 to $19,350. These huge price tags are forcing too many high school graduates to make a painful choice – either take on tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, or try to make their way in a tough job market without competitive credentials.

It’s time to stop treating higher education like a luxury item and work together to bring costs down, expand financial aid, and make college accessible and affordable for all of Illinois’ bright, ambitious young men and women.  Yet over the past five years, the State of Illinois’ investment in higher education has been heading in the wrong direction. The State’s per-student funding for higher education dropped 23.3% from FY2008 to 2013 – a cut of $1,425 per student, adjusted for inflation. During that same time, the average tuition at our state universities spiked 21.1%, putting students even further in the hole upon graduation. 

It is unfair – and extremely shortsighted – to ask our young people to carry more and more of the burden for our higher education system. Illinois’ public universities are the crown jewels of our education system, creating lasting benefits for everyone in our state. At Innovation Illinois, we believe we have a shared responsibility to support our great public colleges and universities, to keep a watchful eye on their administrators and their budgets, and to keep these renowned academic institutions strong and healthy for future generations.

Want to learn more about the lifelong impact of early childhood education and its vital role in building a strong workforce and the ways a well-educated workforce creates statewide prosperity? Here are some additional resources:

● “A Well-Educated Workforce is Key to State Prosperity,” August 2013, Economic Policy Institute
● “The Effects of Investing in Early Education on Economic Growth,” April 2006, Brookings Institute
● “The Economics of Human Development,” November 2011, Brookings Institute

RECOVERY: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2020” June 2013, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 
● “Table 233. Educational Attainment by State: 1990 to 2009,” 2011, U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder.
● “The Effects of Investing in Early Education on Economic Growth,” April 2006, Brookings Institute
● “Why education matters more than ever,” January 2013, CEO for Cities
● “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” September 2010, Education Law Center and Rutgers University
● “States Are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels,” May 2014, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities