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The Savings of Pre-K Education

Duke study says early investment leads to special education spending, classroom benefits

Education researcher Clara Muschkin
Education researcher Clara Muschkin

Early childhood investments significantly reduce the numbers of children placed in special education programs in third grade, resulting in significant cost savings, says a new study from Duke University.

Together, North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four early childhood programs reduced the odds of third-grade special education placement by 39 percent. Nationwide, special education costs nearly twice as much as regular classroom education.

“Policymakers are concerned about costs,” said lead author Clara Muschkin, an associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “Our findings suggest one concrete way that early childhood investments can lead to long-term cost savings.”

Smart Start, which dates back to the early 1990s, provides child care, health screenings and other services to children ages zero to five across the state. More at Four, created in 2001, provided preschool slots for disadvantaged four-year-olds. The program was rechristened NC Pre-K in 2011 and is now managed by a different state agency.

At 2009 funding levels, Smart Start reduced special education placements by 10 percent while More at Four reduced placements by 32 percent.

To gauge the programs’ effects on special education, Muschkin and co-authors Kenneth Dodge and Helen Ladd, who teach at the Sanford School of Public Policy, drew upon an unusual data set housed at Duke that includes information on all of North Carolina’s public schools dating back to the 1990s. The researchers tracked funding levels for preschool programs in all 100 N.C. counties over a 13-year period along with third grade special education placements in those counties.  

The authors found that as a county’s early childhood funding level rose, third-graders were less likely to be placed in special education. On average, for every $100 a county spent on Smart Start, special education placements dropped by 1 percent county-wide. For every $100 spent on More at Four, special education placements fell by 3.47 percent.

The early childhood programs appeared to benefit children across the community, even those who did not participate directly in the programs, in part by helping to raise early education standards across the community. 

Some diagnoses were particularly responsive. In particular, placements for learning disabilities fell dramatically with higher levels of early childhood funding. Learning disabilities are the single largest special education category in North Carolina, accounting for almost 40 percent of all placements. More at Four was also associated with reduced placements for mild mental handicaps as well as attention disorders.

In addition to cost implications, the findings have profound ramifications for children’s educational careers and for their future lives. Previous research suggests children who receive special education are at risk for dropping out of school and for committing crimes as adults. Yet some special education placements may be preventable with early intervention.

“Access to early education may allow some children to transition early from special education placements,” Muschkin said. “For some children, early intervention and treatment may help them to avoid special education in school altogether.”

The new study adds to the evidence that early childhood programs can have lasting benefits. In recent years, some critics have argued that preschool programs’ benefits fade out quickly over time. By contrast, the study finds strong gains from early childhood programs in grade three, well after the preschool years have ended. The findings come on the heels of a 2014 article by Ladd, Muschkin, and Dodge that linked early childhood programs with higher third-grade test scores. The study appears online Feb. 3 in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

CITATION:  “Impact of North Carolina’s Early Childhood Initiatives on Special Education Placements in Third Grade,” Clara G Muschkin, Helen F. Ladd and Kenneth A. Dodge, Education Evaluation and Poilicy Analysis, February 2015. DOI: 10.3102/0162373714559096.