University of Chicago economist James Heckman argues that students -- and the country as a whole -- can benefit financially from good early education.

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A Nobel Prize-winning economist says investments in early learning pay off in the long haul, but that it’s a waste for governments to pay for preschool for kids whose families can already afford it.

At a gathering of education writers in Chicago this week, University of Chicago economics professor James Heckman laid out the research — some of it his — that backs why educational programs for kids between birth and age 5 pay for themselves over a child’s life.

Every dollar invested in strong programs for low-income children, Heckman said, returns between 7 percent to 10 percent each year through increased productivity and lower costs to society. Kids who go to excellent preschools generally make more money, he said, and are less likely to end up in jail, or be unemployed. (And a study of a group of men now nearing 40, which Heckman co-wrote, showed those who went to good preschools as children benefited medically too, with better cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure than men who didn’t go to preschool.)

But Heckman doesn’t think governments should pay for every child to go to preschool.

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The highest returns on investment come from helping disadvantaged kids attend high-quality programs, he said, not from subsidizing all families regardless of need.

Such universal programs, he said, are wasteful.

Families that can afford some day care or regular doctor visits are already providing much of what their children would get in a high-quality preschool. (It’s hard to find anyone as good at influencing a child’s well-being in the early years of life than a highly educated, highly motivated mother, Heckman said.)

So, he says, any public investments in early learning should go to disadvantaged children first.

For its part, Seattle officials say they studied Heckman’s research while developing the city’s new preschool program, and they will give priority to low-income students — similar to what Heckman suggests. The city’s preschool program, which will roll out this fall, will be free for the city’s poorest families.

They also say that they want to offer at least a small subsidy to every student to encourage families of all incomes to participate.

Mixing children from high- and low-income families in the same classroom can lead to higher academic outcomes among low-income children, including a better vocabulary, said Gerard “Sid” Sidorowicz, deputy director of the city office overseeing the new preschool program.

“We don’t want a segregated city,” he said.