School-based child-parent center yields high economic benefits

The Child-Parent Center (CPC) early education program is a large-scale, federally funded intervention providing services for disadvantaged 3- to 9-year-olds in Chicago. A new cost-benefit analysis of the program has found that benefits exceeded costs in a number of areas, including increased earnings and savings.

The longitudinal analysis appears in the January/February issue of Child Development, the journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. It was done by researchers at the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“Our findings provide strong evidence that sustained high-quality early childhood programs can contribute to well-being for individuals and society,” notes Arthur J. Reynolds, professor of child development and director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study at the University of Minnesota, who led the study. “The large-scale CPC program has one of the highest economic returns of any social program for young people. As public institutions are being pressed to cut costs, our findings suggest that increasing preschool access to high-quality preschool is an efficient use of public resources.”

The CPC opened in 1967 in the Chicago Public Schools and has served more than 100,000 families. Currently funded by federal Title I funds from the No Child Left Behind Act, the CPC is the second-oldest federally funded preschool program (after Head Start).

Reynolds and his colleagues did the cost-benefit analysis of the CPC using information collected on about 900 mostly Black children enrolled in 20 of the program’s centers starting when they were 3 and first enrolled in a preschool program. The study continued until the children were 9 and taking part in a school-age program that featured smaller classes, teacher aides, and instructional and family support. Follow-up interviews were done in early adulthood, and information was collected from many sources until age 26. These children were compared to a group of about 500 comparable children who didn’t take part in the CPC but participated in the usual educational interventions for disadvantaged youths in Chicago schools.

The CPC resulted in significantly higher rates of attendance at 4-year colleges and employment in higher-skilled jobs, and significantly lower rates of felony arrests and symptoms of depression in young adulthood. This is the first cost-benefit analysis of a sustained large-scale and publicly funded intervention into adulthood.

The program’s economic benefits in 2007 dollars exceeded costs, including increased earnings and tax revenues, averted costs related to crime, and savings for child welfare, special education, and grade retention. The preschool part showed the strongest economic benefits, providing a total return to society of $10.83 per dollar invested — equivalent to an 18 percent annual return on program investment. Gains varied by child, program, and family group.

When the researchers included the benefits from reductions in smoking, total returns rose to more than $12 per dollar invested. The school-age program yielded a return of about $4 per dollar invested (annual rate of return of 10 percent), and the combined preschool and school-age program yielded returns of $8.24 per dollar invested (annual rate of return of 18 percent), based on average net benefits per child of $38,000 above and beyond less extensive intervention.

Children at higher levels of risk experienced the highest economic benefits, including males ($17.88 per dollar invested), children who had taken part in preschool for a year ($13.58 per dollar invested), and children from higher-risk families, including those whose parents had not graduated from high school ($12.81 per dollar invested).

The researchers identified five key principles of the CPC that they say led to its effectiveness, including providing services that are of sufficient length or duration, are high in intensity and enrichment, feature small class sizes and teacher-student ratios, are comprehensive in scope, and are implemented by well-trained and well-compensated staff.

The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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