Stadiums Vs Our Children’s Future
“Education has long been recognized as a good that has external effects and public attributes. Without public support, the market will yield too few educated workers and too little basic research. This problem has long been understood in the United States and it is why our government, at all levels, has supported public funding for education... Nevertheless, recent studies suggest that one critical form of education, early childhood development, or ECD, is grossly underfunded. However, if properly funded and managed, investment in ECD yields an extraordinary return, far exceeding the return on most investments, private or public.”
Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return- March 2003
Rob Grunewald - Regional Economic Analyst, Arthur J. Rolnick - Senior Vice President and Director of Research

Last Saturday, I attended a panel discussion focusing on early childhood development organized by Twin Cities African American leaders. The panel was moderated by Art Rolnick, Senior Vice President and Director of Research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Panel members consisted of: Daniel P. Mueller, Ph.D., Associate Director, Wilder Research; Scott McConnell, Director of Community Engagement, Center for Early Education and Development, University of Minnesota; Becky Roloff, CEO, YWCA of Minneapolis; Sameerah Bilal-Roby, Executive Director, Early Childhood Resource & Training Center; and Carolyn Smallwood, Executive Director, Way to Grow.
There were several salient points during this panel discussion I thought were germane to the concept of paying forward our public investments, up front, in order to realize savings in the long run. My summary doesn’t cover every panelist’s presentation. It does highlight important aspects of this discussion for consideration in the broader public policy debate.
Art Rolnick opened the panel discussion by framing the current proposal to invest $1 billion into a new Vikings stadium, but nowhere, according to Rolnick, do you hear political leaders talking about a $1 billion investment towards early childhood development. It was an interesting way of framing a political choice to the panel. I’m not sure it was a realistic choice (in part because I love the Vikings), but it did make me think that as we choose to invest in one set of priorities, we are making a decision not to invest in others.
In fact, in his work, Art Rolnick has been a courageous leader in bringing the issue of investing in early childhood development to the forefront in Minnesota and throughout the country. Rolnick postulates that “The conventional view of economic development typically includes company headquarters, office towers, entertainment centers, and professional sports stadiums and arenas… in the future any proposed economic development list should have early childhood development at the top. The return on investment from early childhood development is extraordinary, resulting in better working public schools, more educated workers and less crime.”
For example, Rolnick argues that Detroit has two professional sports stadiums and several casinos. These investments have proven insufficient in moving Detroit out of economic decay. Rolnick believes that the old-fashioned approach to economic development of providing public subsidies to private companies is “short-sighted and fundamentally flawed”. Jobs are not created “they are only relocated” and the public return on these investments is, at most, zero, according to Rolnick.
Rolnick is not alone in this view, Nobel Prize Laureate and University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, also evaluated the public “return on investment,” and concluded that, viewed purely as an economic development strategy, the return on investment to the public of early childhood development programs “far exceeds the return on most projects that are currently funded as economic development,” such as building sports stadiums or relocating businesses.
Another panel member, Becky Roloff, CEO of the Minneapolis YWCA, stated that “The front end of the educational system is broken and everybody knows it. Imagine what Minnesota would be like if we paid attention to education from cradle to grave.” As someone formerly in the corporate world, Roloff stated that she had always felt that Minnesota was great in early childhood education until she began to understand the “horrific trade-off “that we’ve made to reduce money for education and put it somewhere else. One of the answers that Roloff suggests is that K-12 and higher education leaders sit down with the next governor to be very clear that 40-50 percent of raw materials (children) are not ready for education. According to Roloff, there is a plethora of research data available that shows investment in early childhood education is one of the most effective means of ensuring that the next generation are productive citizens and have a pathway out of poverty. 
Sameerah Bilal-Roby, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Resource & Training Center, talked about the importance of working with parents to increase their understanding of the impact of self-regulation and verbal responsiveness in their child’s development. Bilal-Roby also focused on new research in physiology and chemistry of the brain that has established that the first three years of life are more critical to the development of human capacities than any three that follow. According to Bilal-Roby, “We know that quality school readiness must be coordinated with housing, food and mental health in order for it to be successful.”
Carolyn Smallwood, Executive Director of Way to Grow, stated that “Twenty percent of Minnesota workers are functionally illiterate. Less than one half of the children in this state are proficient in reading and math. Children born with low birthrate and fewer parental resources have poor health, are less likely to work and have lower earnings as adults. By age three, children of parents on welfare have a vocabulary foundation of about 500 words, working class parents 700 words, and college educated parents 1,100 words. Children who are chronically hungry are more likely to be in special education, repeat a grade, get into fights, and to have lower test scores. We are losing two to three generations of uneducated children.”
These are powerful statements and statistics that get to the heart of why many of leaders of major corporations such as Best Buy Co. Inc., Cargill, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of MN, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P., Ecolab, Inc., General Mills and others, have formed The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation ( whose mission is “To recommend cost-effective strategies for preparing children to succeed in school… A child with a winning start becomes part of a solid community, contributes to our competitiveness and enriches our society.”
Another effort that is gaining momentum in seeking public and private support to address early childhood education is the School Readiness Funders Coalition. The Coalition members include the Blandin Foundation, Twin Cities United Way, Grotto Foundation, McKnight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, Sheltering Arms Foundation, Social Ventures Partners, and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. These funders believe that every child in Minnesota needs to be ready for kindergarten by 2020. The School Readiness Funders Coalition also believes that “Minnesota needs a comprehensive approach to early childhood care and education that establishes accountability for measurable and sustained progress.” For more information on this innovative approach, please visit
According to Lisabeth B. Schorr, in her book Common Purpose – Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America, “Our nation’s failure to act on what we know about the early years is the product, at least in part, of our commitment to rugged individualism. The notion that every family should be able to care for its own, without outside help, has made the U.S. the only industrialized country in the world without universal pre-school, paid paternal leave, and income supports for families with young children… One in ten children is growing up in extreme poverty – conditions in which it is almost impossible to give young children the responsive care and nurturing…their healthy development requires.”
As we think about what our priorities are as a state, it is hard to imagine that Minnesotans value sports stadiums and mega malls more than the human capital development of our children. I would argue, by making these investments now, we can begin to reverse the cycle of intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency. We could invest upstream in early child development, rather than paying much more money down steam, by building prisons to support increased incarcerations rates, low productivity, unsafe communities and increasing demands for public services. The current arrangement is unsustainable.
I had dinner the other night with a former state legislator and we talked about the wealth of evidence to support public investment in early childhood development.  I asked this person, why haven’t we invested to bring early childhood education efforts to scale? He said, “It’s simple, at the Legislature it is about entrenched interest and power and children don’t have either.”

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