This piece is the first prize winner of the 2019 Baines Report Op-Ed Contest.
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It’s the autumn of 1995 in a sleepy East Texas town. The principal of the local preschool stops by the store for groceries, when she notices a young child playing outside by the gas pumps. She rushes to the child’s father, who is working the cash register, and explains to him the importance of early childhood education. Within minutes, she has helped him enroll the girl in the preschool where she is principal. As she leaves, she tells him sternly, “The gas pump is no place for a child to play.”

The principal was Louise Jetton, author and lifelong educator. The man working the cash register was my father. And the little girl? That was me.

Over two decades ago, Mrs. Jetton intuitively understood what research confirms today: Pre-kindergarten can change a child’s trajectory, especially when that child comes from a low-income family. Over the course of a lifetime, children who attend Pre-K obtain more degrees, earn higher incomes, commit fewer crimes, and live healthier lives. Moreover, children from disadvantaged backgrounds make the highest gains in Pre-K, and their children have better life outcomes in the second generation. For many families, like mine, Pre-K breaks cycles of intergenerational poverty.

Yet, 50 percent of America’s three and four-year-olds are not enrolled in Pre-K. If the research is clear, why don’t we invest in universal Pre-K? Most opponents cite its cost. This concern is driven in part by confusion over what the cost of Pre-K actually is, with estimates ranging from $2 billion to $12 billion annually. Other studies point out that universal Pre-K more than pays for itself, with the return on investment ranging from $1.89 to $7 in societal gains for every $1 spent on early childhood education.

Of course, the fact that a program is a good investment doesn’t necessarily mean we currently have funds to invest. Even $2 billion a year (compared to our federal budget of over $4 trillion) may appear excessive to elected officials with competing policy priorities. Fortunately, there is a way to fund Pre-K for every child in America without spending a cent and perhaps even cutting costs: eliminate the 12th grade.

Each year, states and the federal government spend approximately $668 billion on K-12 education, allotted to schools on a per pupil basis. High school students (grades 9-12) make up 31 percent of the total student population receiving this funding, which means that we spend over $50 billion annually on 12th grade: much more than even the highest estimates of Pre-K costs.

Cognitive science supports this recommendation. Children’s brains have a much greater capacity to learn at the age of 4 than at the age of 17, so the academic return on investment in education is highest in early childhood. Replacing 12th grade with Pre-K would not decrease the duration of publicly funded schooling; it would merely shift the traditional 13-year schooling model to begin one year earlier. Students would graduate from high school at the age of 16 or 17, like students in the United Kingdom and many other countries. Given the higher academic achievement and educational attainment of children who attend Pre-K, American students would leave high school even better prepared for college and careers than they do under the current system.

Some might be concerned about the impact of this new model on existing teacher placements. In fact, most states do not have enough high school content teachers to meet their needs, but they do have enough early childhood educators. Thus, replacing 12th grade with Pre-K would increase efficiency by addressing teacher shortages.

How we spend the first few years of our life has dramatic implications for how we will spend our adult years. Early childhood is a time of learning and growth: physical, emotional, and intellectual. Universal Pre-K would ensure that all young children have access to spaces where their brains can grow in developmentally appropriate ways.

After all, the gas pump is no place for a child to play. That child should be in Pre-K.