June 1 2007

Assuring access to high quality early learning opportunities for pre-school children benefits the child, family, community, and taxpayers. A review of the research shows how.

Research on the impact of early learning is complex and multi-faceted. It includes not only the impact on the child, undoubtedly the most important aspect, but also the impact of early learning on families, taxpayers, the economy, future government costs, and more. This article provides an independent review of much of the current research and literature on the benefits and outcomes of early childhood education. Using this summary, policymakers and other stakeholders can glean an understanding of the breadth of research that exists on early learning. More information and links to research and other resources on early learning can be found at


The primary objective of early learning opportunities is to benefit the child. State funded programs, in particular, target children from low income households, who are shown to benefit the most from quality early learning programs. There is a growing awareness about the need to deepen the service and fiscal strategies to promote social, cognitive and emotional health and well being of 3- and 4-year-olds.

Research evidence is clear that the child benefits both in the short term and long term. Research shows the benefits to the child include improved readiness to learn, improved early literacy, decreased need for remedial or special education placement, and improved cognitive development. Long term, research shows a stronger likelihood to graduate from high school, improved academic confidence, and more participation in post-secondary education. Longitudinal studies indicate higher earning power, decreased participation in the judicial or correctional systems, and decreased need for welfare assistance. While all of these benefits are focused on the child, there are other benefits to family and community as well.

The secondary objectives of early learning opportunities are the benefits to the broader community – including: 

  • The family. Research shows increased earning power for parents. It’s clear that many parents of young children need reliable care for their children while they work or go to school. Access to quality early learning provides a stimulating and safe environment for their children – and the ability for the parent to have success in the workplace.


  • The community and taxpayer. The community at large benefits in several ways. There is an economic impact of having quality early learning programs available – both the direct impact on the early learning center as a business in the community and the indirect impact of quality early learning opportunities as a resource for parents and potential employers.

    In addition, there are tax savings from decreased cost of public education because of a reduced need for special education placement, repeating grades, and other remedial efforts. There is the long-term tax savings as well, a result of decreased need for public welfare programs and decreased participation in the judicial and correctional systems.


  • Employers, now and in the future. Research shows that parents with dependable, high quality care for their children are less likely to be absent from work. Children with high quality early learning access are shown to grow up to be better-educated potential employees.


Background on State Supported Early Learning in PA

There are roughly 700,000 children under age 5 in Pennsylvania. It’s estimated that less than one-third of all children have access to high-quality learning programs. Most who are enrolled in early learning or early care are enrolled in private programs. More than half of the cost of early learning and child care programs are paid by parents, while the remainder is paid through government programs or other organizations. It is estimated that nationwide, state and local government spending account for only 15 –20 percent of all spending on early learning and child care, a far cry from the government support for K-12 programs.

In 2006, more than 80 of Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts offered pre-kindergarten programs, serving roughly 13,000 4-year-old children. The 2007-08 education budget recommended by Governor Ed Rendell continues and builds on previous investments in early learning programs in his proposed budget for 2007-2008.

Impact of Early Learning on Family and Community

Many children in Pennsylvania are involved in early learning opportunities at home, but with so many children spending most of the day in non-parental care, many children do not have access to quality learning environments. The National Survey of America’s Families verified that 82 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds with employed mothers spend part of their day in nonparental care. Of these children, about two-thirds attend some form of early learning program.

According to The Packard Foundation, 61% of mothers with children under the age of 3 were in the workforce in 2000, compared to 34% some 25 years before. Women comprise nearly half the workforce, compared to less than 30% in 1950, and as more mothers work outside the home, the availability of quality early learning programs becomes a more important issue for children, parents, employers, and indeed, the entire community.

Research shows that nearly one-quarter of work absences are due to problems with child care. The availability of quality child care and early learning programs therefore should be an important issue to employers as well as families. Available, affordable early learning programs are a selling point to attract new business, keep existing business, and expand employment. The research includes examples of investors targeting early learning and child care programs as part of an overall economic development strategy because quality early learning programs make regions more attractive to working families and business growth.

Impact of Early Learning on Child Development

Keeping children fed, comfortable and safe isn’t enough, according to the research on early learning. Quality early learning opportunities – where children learn how to learn –is increasingly recognized as an essential part of the education continuum that extends through adulthood. The National Academy of Sciences says high quality child care and early childhood education can give young children learning experiences that have a positive effect on early learning, language development and school achievement.

The K-12 responsibility for educating children long has been primarily a public one nationally and in Pennsylvania. The state Constitution requires the legislature to maintain and support a thorough and efficient education system. But research demonstrates first grade, even kindergarten, may be too late to begin. Learning how to learn starts earlier.

Research by a number of organizations over the past several years demonstrates quality early education is important to the learning process. The first few years of life are critical to growth and brain development, creating pathways for learning. The early years are especially critical to language development, socialization, and complex thinking - important attributes for success in school and beyond.

Return on Investment Research Shows High Returns

Early learning is linked to the state’s future vitality, and the research demonstrates that connection in a very quantifiable way. Some states are beginning to make the connection between early education now and future human services needs. For example, California uses 3rd grade illiteracy data to project the future capacity demands of the prison system. Research shows the importance of early learning on adult achievement, which has a direct impact on the state’s ability to compete nationally and internationally. Some examples include studies by the Committee for Economic Development, the Rand Corporation, and the Federal Reserve.

The Committee for Economic Development (CED) – a business-sponsored national research and policy group – recommends universal free access to pre-kindergarten, with states taking the organizational lead in partnership with the federal government. In making such a recommendation, the group cited problems with early learning quality in child care settings, the need to provide enriching environments and learning opportunities for all children at the critical pre-school age, and a current system of early learning that lacks coordination with public schools and the continuum of education that begins at birth and follows into adulthood. The report also noted that the United State’s fragmented system of early learning leaves all U.S. children at a disadvantage with international competitors.

The Rand Corporation estimates that every $1 invested in quality, comprehensive pre-school saves $2 in the long run through lower costs for education, welfare and criminal justice. Some studies predict even more economic return to the community at large and the grown learner. Other economic impact studies estimate a less dramatic – but very real – impact and return on investment. Early learning as an investment strategy is shown to out-perform even stock market investments – in the form of decreased future costs. To policymakers facing escalating costs of corrections and other human services programs, investing now in early learning is a sound investment to curtail future cost escalation.

According to a report by Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, investment in early learning results in economic success not only for the child but also the overall economy. Decreased spending on government programs and a higher tax base are tangible results of investments in early learning, as children with access to quality early learning have higher earnings potential than their peers.

In short, early learning has a direct impact on the state’s future workforce – and the ability of that workforce to attract and keep business and industry.


Early learning impacts many – the child, family and community; the school systems, potential employers, taxpayers. Pennsylvania’s ability to compete nationally and internationally for employers and employees, family-sustaining jobs, and a strong economy is benefited from greater investment in quality early learning opportunities for the youngest Pennsylvanians.

Access to quality early learning is effective and important to child development. Quality early learning has a positive impact on the cognitive and social development of the child. Children with access to quality early learning opportunities are more successful in early elementary school, meaning lower remedial costs to the school and taxpayer. The children show more confidence in learning environments, are more likely to graduate from high school than their socio-economic peers, and are more likely to pursue post-secondary educational opportunities.

Longitudinal studies show that investments in early learning opportunities pay off in the future in terms of lower spending in other human services areas such as welfare and the criminal justice systems. These studies show that adults with access to pre-kindergarten learning have greater success in the workforce, with higher earnings, more skills, and better training. The research demonstrate these findings: adults who had access to quality early learning as children are better able to compete in a global economy than those without.

While ongoing research will strengthen early learning opportunities and help policymakers and educators better understand the value of early education, there do not appear to be major gaps or holes in the research findings. The existing research literature makes a compelling case for public investment in early learning. The research shows that the benefit extends beyond the child and family into the community, taxpayers as a whole, and indeed the state’s future economic vitality.

For more information, visit these IssuesPA articles on early learning and the state budget:

Or visit these other resources for more information on early learning in Pennsylvania: