Wednesday, April 24, 2013

GUEST COLUMN: Invest in kids today to lower crime tomorrow

By DON ASH, Sheriff of Wyandotte County

As Sheriff of Wyandotte County, my number one mission is public safety.

Certainly that means having to make arrests and keep criminals out of our communities – but I often find myself thinking about how they became that way.

I’m absolutely certain that giving children a solid foundation for academic achievement today is the best way to cut down on crime in the years to come.

With that in mind I’m especially concerned that the value of early childhood education is being lost in the current legislative debate about our state’s new budget.

Only the Senate version of the budget fully funds early childhood programs, which are vital for ensuring that our youngest and most vulnerable citizens have the preparation they need for success in school and life.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that the “architecture” of children’s brains is established before they turn five, and that everything they learn, both as children and adults, is built on the strength of that architecture.

Many children from low income families start school at a disadvantage, and fall farther and farther behind as lessons get more rigorous, which ultimately leads them to drop out of school and face a life of underemployment and, in many cases, involvement in crime.

Research recently released by the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids shows how quality early learning sets kids on a different course.

One report described the Perry Preschool Project, which served disadvantaged children in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Researchers followed the kids who were randomly assigned to participate up through the age of 40 and compared them to the children who did not participate in the program.

At age 27, those who had not participated were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers with five or more arrests. Results of a rigorous study of Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers showed similar results. By age 18 those who did not participate were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

It’s also important to note that reports from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids have also documented the impact of these programs on long-term academic achievement and showed that:
  • Kids left out of Michigan’s state early education program were held back 51 percent more often by the eighth grade than those who participated;
  • Those who participated in Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten program gained an average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than those not in the program;
  • In Pennsylvania’s pre-kindergarten program, the percentage of kids with developmental delays dropped from 21 percent at the time of entry to 8 percent by the time the kids completed the program; and, 
  • Kids left out of New Jersey’s two-year pre-kindergarten program were held back in school twice as much by second grade.
While all of these results show the academic value of early education we must also recognize their value to taxpayers as well.

When you factor in the positive results of early education programs, including reductions in crime, education savings and fewer social services – including detention and incarceration, the return on investment is as much as $16 for every $1 invested.

We also know that every child who drops out of school, uses drugs and becomes a career criminal costs society, on average, $2.5 million over a lifetime.

Residents of the Kansas City, Kansas/Wyandotte County area should especially value these findings.

According to the latest data from Kids Count reports produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than one in three children in Wyandotte County is living in poverty, and only 69 percent are proficient readers by the fifth grade.

Unfortunately the statistics could get even worse, since right now only 12.5 percent of the county’s public elementary schools offer pre-kindergarten or programs for four-year-old at-risk kids, according to the Kids Count reports.

I know we can do better, for the sake of our kids and the future of our community. I urge our legislature to support this proposal with the full funding it deserves.

It’s a smart investment that will yield long-term dividends in academic achievement, crime reduction and a better quality of life for us all.