A Whole, New View of Education

If someone said, “We have higher taxes, and our people are happier too,” would you laugh at the joke? I recently heard the Danish Minister for Children and Education say this both with seriousness and with pride, albeit with a smile, about her home country. In Denmark taxes sit at a whopping 50 percent of an adult’s income. Speaking at a Brookings Institute event titled “Early Education in the Nordic Countries”, Minister Christine Antorini knew the Americans in the room couldn’t envision this idea finding widespread support in our country. Maybe that was also a part of her knowing smile.

This panel brought together education experts from Sweden, Finland, and Denmark to discuss the early education system in Nordic countries, what they could improve, and the possible applications to the American education system. If you’ve glanced at the news recently, you know that in President Obama’s State of the Union Address he encouraged states to “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” The questions that follow are innumerable, anything from “Run by whom?” to, “With what money?” and I hoped to leave with a few inspirational ideas from our Nordic friends at the panel.

So now back to taxes. Russ Whitehurst, a Senior Fellow and Director at the Brown Center on Education Policy, asked the panel how much they spent per child on early education (America spends about $8,000 per child per year on Headstart, according to Whitehurst). “We thought you’d ask this, we know you are concerned with investments,” replied Antorini. She compared the U.S. percentage of GDP spent on early education, 0.01 percent, to the Danish 0.8 percent, but did not have a per capita number to compare to ours. The fact that America knows exactly how much they pay per student doesn’t surprise me; taxpayers want to know the stats. The fact that Denmark does not know these exact expenditures does surprise me, but maybe it shouldn’t, considering their more countrywide view of affairs in comparison to our more individual emphasis.

Instead of per child cost to the country, the Danish keep track of facts like: parents can share a one year maternity leave, 91 percent of kids aged 1-2 and 97 percent aged 3-5 are in daycare, 90 percent of their parents are satisfied with services, and 60 percent of their daycare (what we call preschool) teachers have a pedagogical degree in education. Families pay 0-25 percent of daycare fees, depending on their income. Children can attend daycare even if parents are unemployed.

Americans often think in terms of investments, debating whether early education is a valid and smart use of money. How much of a future benefit will each invested dollar receive? The panel cited a Tennessee Study, which found one standard deviation higher in age 5 test scores was correlated with an 18 percent increase in income at age 30. As a psychology student I know that correlation is not causation; there is no way to re-do life for each child both in and out of early education and compare the results. Getting real, concrete evidence for early education is an ever-shifting game.

This isn’t an irrelevant question especially if we bring up ideas like the stewardship of available funds. I don’t see much evidence that Americans care about budgets on primarily stewardship grounds. A strictly investment minded, “what’s in it for me,” attitude cuts the education debate short.

I would love for my generation to start asking larger questions. For one, we need to start thinking about equity rather than equality. A sliding scale for preschool costs based on income level may seem “unfair” to those in the highest income brackets who “worked hard for their money”. Instead I dare to call the situation of a single mom, unable to pay for daycare and therefore unable to search for a job, unfair. It seems that providing a place for your children to spend the day while at work is a service the government should take seriously.

We like to think about what “I” can get out of “my” tax payments. Göran Montan, a member of the Riksdag in Sweden, said he often hears this question as well. He responds that they could go sit in the hospital for a few months under critical care; this usually clears up any problems with the high tax rate. He also said, “Can societies afford not to provide early childhood day care and education?” This is the very question that I believe Americans need to acknowledge. We could frame the question as, “I deserve to get early child education from my tax dollars,” but then what if you have no children? Our focus on equality creates problems. A more accurate and whole perspective is, “We as a society want to provide safe and beneficial child care to our littlest citizens.”

Another question we must explore is how to increase the supply and quality of our teachers, especially if each state is to run these preschools as Obama implied. How can we make this an even more honorable and competitive job? In Finland there is a surplus of qualified teachers for the open positions. Creating a space for children to spend the day, to learn, to socialize, a place where parents feel confident leaving their children, must be our goal. This type of a society, echoing the Nordic example, would increase parental flexibility for work and family life balance. It fosters a flourishing community.

This community perspective is one that I hope to take seriously, whether in life or in the workplace. The numbers say that early education (ages 0-3) gives us the highest return dollar-for-dollar through future employment. But I don’t think the conversation or motivation can stop there. Rather, what type of a society do we want? I like the idea of education being a right to all children, starting from birth, to reach their fullest potential.

-Lauren Walker is a senior at Calvin College, graduating this spring with a major in psychology and minors in international development and spanish. She currently interns at the Center for Public Justice assisting their education policy reform project, which explores how Christians can better invest in public education.