Early Head Start cuts could have big future costs

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - In the second part of our series on funding cuts to the Early Head Start program, Amanda Brennan takes a look at the correlation between quality early child care and development and a functioning community.
In January of 2018, the Department of Education and Early Development changed its grant application for the Head Start program. Funds from the grant previously used for both Early Head Start and Head Start are now only allowed to be put towards childcare for 3 to 5-year-olds. Several Early Head Start programs around the state could lose funding, which could mean the end of state supported quality childcare for infants and toddlers. Because the majority of the families that participate in Early Head Start are at the Federal Poverty Line, the lack of quality care for infants and toddlers could have long term negative effects on the Fairbanks community. University of Alaska Fairbanks professor in the Early Childhood program at the Community and Technical College, Patty Meritt, discusses the social impacts of losing quality early childcare.

Patty Meritt; Early Childcare Program Professor >> "It's been proven that early childhood education can stop a lot of problems later on. When kids live in poverty and they don't have adequate early childhood education, that's when you see a lot of problems develop in society. "

The lack of quality childcare for infants and toddlers could also have a negative effect on the physiology of the brain, especially within the first three years of development. According to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, in the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Neural pathways for basic vision and hearing develop first, followed by language skills and higher cognitive functions. Toxic stress on the brain, however, during this crucial time of development can damage those neural pathways. According to Executive Director of Thrivalaska, Alicia Berka, the Early Head Start program can help form the brain architecture of this crucial time of human development.

Alicia Berka; Executive Dir., Thrivalaska >> "So we educate and care for children. We help young children form the architecture of their brain, and the foundation of their ability to be successful in life and in school. And while I understand the Department of Education and Early Development wants kids to be ready for school, the time to start is not at three years old or four, the time to start it is from birth, and to go all the way to five. From birth to three, children, their brains are developing at a faster rate than they will at any other time in their lives. And now we've just heard that they're completely cutting that out of our budgets. And that's just going to be devastating for a lot of programs."

Economics Professor from the University of Chicago, James Heckman has performed extensive research on the long term financial impact of the lack of early childcare. He says every dollar invested in quality infant and toddler childcare, specifically for the disadvantaged, delivers a 13% annual return on investment. Meritt agrees with the Nobel Prize winning professor's research.

Patty Meritt >> "There's a lot of studies that show how the importance of what happens in the early years affects the choices people make later on."
Amanda Brennan reporting.