What Illinois schools provide to children—in terms of quality, in terms of equality—has been at the center of the budget impasse, and school funding was the cornerstone of the stopgap budget passed last week. And it's not especially surprising. Though people are constantly trying to change and improve how it is provided, universal, free K-12 education is considered a non-negotiable aspect of government.

But the years before kindergarten are not. (The general public is 66 percent in favor of increasing taxes for early-childhood education; the wealthy, just 58 percent.) And it's worth considering if that makes sense.

The above graphic is from a presentation by James Heckman, the Nobel-winning University of Chicago economist, based on his own research. I've written about Heckman's work before, but was reminded of it again by a couple things. First, an interview he did with the Financial Times; it's a good, if brief, introduction to the work on early-childhood and pre-natal policy that's become his focus in recent years.

Second, a new piece by the Reader's Steve Bogira on cutbacks to home-visit programs, which begin in the pre-natal period, pick up intensity in the zero-to-three period with weekly visits, and continue until kindergarten, covering the years before universal education options begin. It's time-intensive, and not cheap, even though home-visit employees are paid considerably less than public-school teachers. It reminds me of the programs that Dana Suskind, the University of Chicago pediatric surgeon, is trying to build off her Thirty Million Words project, with an emphasis on reading, talking, and interaction well before the school years start. There's overlap between what Suskind is pioneering and the program that Bogira describes.

And it's also critical work; Bogira profiles a developmentally delayed child born to two poor, learning-disabled parents. In many cases, it's meant to help them provide the kind of parenting they didn't receive as children:

Many clients tell her about verbal, physical, and sexual abuse they suffered in childhood. "Those experiences obviously make it hard for them to nurture their children. They're stuck in family cycles that they want to break but don't know how to or don't think they can. I tell them, 'You're obviously strong—now I'll work to help you surpass those experiences.'"


Sanchez tells me later: "When I first talk with my clients about praise and empathy, many of them don't know what that is. I ask them, 'Did your parents ever sit down with you and help you with your homework?' 'No, they just said that I had to do it—and if I didn't do it, I got hit.'"

Parenting is a skill, and one that we largely learn from our immediate surroundings; there are precious few opportunities to learn it elsewhere, even though we know doing so actually works to improve educational returns and reduce crime, as I wrote in 2013 about Chicago's Child-Parent Centers:

The differences were not necessarily immense: a 25 percent reduction in felony arrest for preschool participants; an approximately ten percent increase in high-school graduation rates. (Some were greater, such as a 40 percent reduction in indicated abuse or neglect; the same year, UIC prof Joshua Mersky found further evidence that the centers had a positive effect on child welfare.) But Reynolds calculated that the substantial early preschool investment of $8,152 per student returned $92,220 to society, primarily from reduced “life-course crime savings,” including victim impact (five dollars per dollar invested), and increased earnings capacity and tax revenues ($3.39 per dollar invested).

CPCs have been around for decades, praised by researchers and journalists, but they've never served that many families, and that number declined to just 670 students in 2009 due to budget cuts. Similar programs, as Bogira reports, have fallen victim to the state's budget impasse as the state's unpaid bills pile up. There's no guarantee they'll come back to full funding, and the cost could be even greater in the long term.