It’s a rare moment in national politics when Republicans and Democrats can find common ground for improving preschool education, reducing future crime and saving money.
Yet, that’s the opportunity facing members of Congress as they consider the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the primary federal legislation that deals with K-12 education. I encourage them to listen to police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors in Maine and across the country who urge Congress to include designated funding for high-quality early childhood education, such as pre-K, programs as part of the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization package. To me, including support for quality pre-K is a no-brainer based on the potential crime reduction benefits alone.
For example, a long-term study of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, tracked disadvantaged children who attended high-quality preschool in a randomized control trial with a group of similar children left out. At age 27, those who had not participated were already five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers with five or more arrests. By age 40, those who did not attend the program were 50 percent more likely to become chronic offenders with more than 10 arrests and 50 percent more likely to be arrested for violent crimes.
In another study of Chicago’s publicly-funded Child-Parent Centers, children who did not participate in the high-quality early education program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.
Furthermore, when we don’t invest effectively in our nation’s children, all Americans pay the price — in taxes for criminal justice costs, costs to business and costs to victims. Nationally, we spend $75 billion every year on corrections to incarcerate more than 2 million criminals. In Maine, we spend about $380 million each year for nearly 5,000 people who are locked up in our adult and juvenile correctional facilities. A sophisticated analysis of more than 20 different studies of public pre-K programs for at-risk children showed that they averaged a net return to society of $26,000 for every child served by cutting crime and the cost of incarceration and reducing other costs, such as special education and grade retention.
Unfortunately, many children do not have access to any pre-K program. In fact, 63 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds from families below 200 percent of the federal poverty line are not enrolled in pre-K — that’s 2.4 million children. All too often programs are simply unavailable or the cost is out of reach. And quality is still not uniform in these programs. More support is needed to strengthen these programs and to ensure more children benefit.
The good news is that we have a lot to be proud of in Maine when it comes to early childhood education. Our public preschool program continued to expand during the 2012-13 school year, improving Maine’s national ranking to 13th among 41 states in terms of access for 4-year-olds. Statewide enrollment of 4-year-olds increased by two percentage points (only two states had higher increases), in what was a down year nationally for enrollment. Still, our program reached only a third of our state’s 4-year-olds.
With support from a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act package, quality early childhood education could become more widespread as a building block for stronger, safer, more productive communities. A dedicated funding stream for high-quality early education would ensure that more of our children arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed.
After decades of working in corrections, I’ve seen firsthand far too many young adults arrive in our jails who failed academically. We know that high-quality early education can set our children on the right path from the start. I want all of our children in Maine and across the United States to be guided toward a lifetime of success and away from involvement in the criminal justice system.
That’s why I hope Sen. Susan Collins and her colleagues in Congress make dedicated funding for early childhood programs a priority in the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This will make a big effect on the lives of children while saving a lot of money and making our communities safer in the years to come.
Troy Morton is the Penobscot County sheriff.