Every year in Minnesota, thousands of the state's children enter school unprepared for kindergarten.

And every year, the cost to the K-12 system of those children not being ready is about $113 million, according to a study released Monday.

From lost revenue after students drop out to increased safety and special education costs, the system takes a hit when students aren't ready for school, according to Robert Chase of Wilder Research, which released the study.

"The schools are losing $42 million a year just because of students dropping out early," said Chase, a consulting scientist with the St. Paul research company. "They start behind and they don't catch up."

Previous research has shown that when the state invests in early childhood education for at-risk children, there's about a 16 percent annual rate of return. But for schools, a quality two-year program for at-risk 3-year-olds would cost about $377 million per year, or more than three times the $113 million it would save, the study shows.

The moral of the story?

Maybe more than schools should be footing the early-education bill, some officials say.

"If the state is investing strategically, it would recognize that many parts of the state budget would benefit from investing in early childhood education," said Rob Grunewald, associate economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "The benefits tend to be spread out through many parts of our public budget."

Costing millions

The Wilder Research study, which was commissioned by the Bush Foundation, focused only on the quantifiable costs within the K-12 system.

It found that, per year, the school system loses:

• $42 million of per-pupil money from the state because of students dropping out before graduation.

• $28.9 million in teacher-related costs, because of higher rates of teacher absenteeism and turnover, and higher pay for teachers working in unsatisfactory conditions because of behavior problems and low achievement among students that could have been prevented if students were better prepared.

• $24.4 million for special education and grade repetition costs that can be attributed to children entering kindergarten under prepared.

• $11 million to serve students learning English who have no early education.

• $6 million spent on school safety because of delinquent behavior that possibly could have been prevented if students were better prepared for school.

Chase said that the estimate is likely conservative, because many costs to schools can't be quantified. How much does it cost for remedial programs for students who were unprepared for kindergarten? How often do parents pull their children from public schools because they don't like bad classroom behavior?

"The schools by themselves can't afford to prevent all these issues," Chase said. "The state would have to take some form of collective responsibility to better prepare our kids for school success."

A cost-effective solution

Outside of benefits to the school system, early childhood education can benefit a community in many ways, Grunewald said.

Government gets more income tax revenue when its citizens are better educated and make more money, he said. Less money would have to be spent on the criminal justice system, as well as on health care and other social services.

In St. Paul, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation is running a $30 million pilot project to find the best and most cost-effective way to provide quality early childhood education to at-risk students.

The project mentors parents before the child is born, on such issues as the importance of brain stimulation, and it helps parents select early education programs for their child via scholarships.

The Wilder program estimates that a high-quality two-year program for at-risk kids would cost about $13,500 annually per child. But Duane Benson, the foundation's director, said it might be possible for the state to find more cost-effective ways to do it.

"What Wilder is finding out is reinforcement of the original germ behind the Early Learning Foundation," said Benson, executive director of the foundation. "We have to do a better job of preparing children for school."

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541