Cuts To Early Education Now Could Cost The State Later

Sabrina Nelson and son Rylan, who’s now 3. (Photo courtesy Sabrina Nelson)
Sabrina Nelson and son Rylan, who’s now 3. (Photo courtesy Sabrina Nelson)

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Juneau resident Sabrina Nelson says she was a mess when she had her first child.

“You’ve just given birth, you’re dealing with postpartum depression. You don’t know what resources you have for you even though you’ve been given a bunch of handouts at the hospital or the birth center, and do you have time to read those things when you have a newborn? No. You’re just trying to keep up with sleep,” Nelson says.

Her doula told her about the free program Parents as Teachers. New parents get support and guidance from an educator who visits the home once a month.

Nelson joined the program when her son was two months old. She says it helped her profoundly. She learned activities catering to different aspects of her son’s development that she wouldn’t have known on her own. The program connected her with other families.

“Networking with the other families, I can say, ‘Hey, my child is having trouble with this. Have you gone through something similar?’ I wouldn’t have had the confidence to approach someone and ask those questions or go on playdates and things like that. I don’t think I would’ve been as actively participating in his development,” Nelson says.

Parents as Teachers is just one of the programs the state could eliminate funding for completely. A House Finance subcommittee also proposes cutting pre-kindergarten grants and money forBest Beginnings. The Anchorage-based organization supports early learning groups around the state and leverages private funds to help bring free books to thousands of Alaska children through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

Joy Lyon is the executive director of the Association for the Education of Young Children in Southeast. She says the proposed cuts come as a total shock and will affect families that rely of these programs.

“All indications that I’ve seen previous to this are that there are more and more people that understand the importance of early childhood, that by supporting children when they’re young, they’re going to be a stronger workforce in the future, we’re going to have a stronger economy. So having a strong stable family will lead to a stronger, more stable state,” Lyon says.

Retired Juneau pediatrician Dr. George Brown says a child’s brain develops the interconnections that have to do with memory and language learning early on.

“When children are in situations where their parents play with them, they talk to them, they hold them, they touch them, particularly during the first year or year and a half, they are increasing those connections amazingly fast,” he says.

Programs like the Imagination Library and Parents as Teachers encourage and provide support for parents to do these things and create safe environments during that early time period, Brown says.

Conversely, children who spend those years in unhealthy homes don’t develop those brain functions as successfully. Brown says that will likely lead to disadvantages later in life.

“If we invest as much as we can during the first three or four years of a child’s life, supporting those families, you are going to be saving a huge amount of money later in life in criminal cost, in court cost, in medical cost and in death cost. So it’s a no-brainer investment,” Brown says.

Economic analyst Jim Calvin with the McDowell Group agrees. The research and consulting firm has looked at the economic impact of early education and child care services in Alaska for the last 10 years.

“It’s better from an economic perspective for the state to maintain funding as much as possible than to cut it at this point,” he says.

With the state suffering from declining oil prices, Calvin says parents of young children need support more than ever.

Juneau residents can weigh in on the state’s operating budget, including cuts to early education programs, today at 1 p.m. at the State Capitol Building.