Economix draws attention to studies pointing out the importance of early childhood, pre-kindergarten, education in development of cognitive and non-cognitive (perseverence, motivation, risk-aversion, time-preference, self-esteem, self-control etc) skills that are critical in influencing later day outcomes.
It has been found by numerous studies that good education in the 3-4 year periods, especially lacking in the children from weaker economic strata, has direct effects on wages, schooling, health, performance on achievement tests, crime, teenage pregnancy, smoking etc. It has large positive externalities too - better outcomes in schools adding to the schools quality, lower risks of crime and teenage pregnancy, higher earnings and resulting higher tax revenues, and local economic effects like increased labor-force participation of parents.
James Heckman estimates that better pre-school education has an average annual rate of return of 12%, and claims that "learning begets learning". It has also been claimed that it produces greater social economic return than business subsidies. More on the benefits of early childhood education is found here, here, here, here, and here. Critics have pointed to the failings of the Head Start program for 4 year olds in the US in support of their opposition to the iportance of early childhood education. Here is a strong case made out for keeping assistance for Head Start in the fiscal stimulus bill, which was deleted in the final $789 bn compromise Bill.
In light of all these findings and in view of the fact that private schools are fast replacing (or have already replaced) public schools as the dominant choice for even children from poor families in the urban centers of India, it may be appropriate if governments in India start looking at early childhood education in atleast a few cities. One way to start off is to build-up and improve on the existing anganwadi centers.
Update 1 (21/6/2011)
A recently released study of 1,000 poor children who benefited from Chicago’s Child-Parent Center Education Program (which includes intensive preschool, parent training and support for students through third grade), suggests that every dollar spent on the program yielded nearly $11 to society, including increased tax revenue and reduced spending on child welfare, special education and grade retention. Read Nancy Folbre here.