My Turn: Pre-K plan will cut future prison costs
Remember the day you sent your son or daughter off to preschool for the first time?
Chances are you felt a great deal of gratitude, knowing the experience would form a foundation for long-term school success.
Unfortunately, not all kids have that opportunity. Nationwide, the annual cost for a quality preschool program ranges from $4,000 to $9,000 per child, well out of range for many working families. As a result, many children who don’t participate start school at a strong disadvantage and fall further behind year after year as lessons become more challenging.
This bothers me greatly as the Merrimack County sheriff, because disadvantaged children who participate in high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school and stay out of trouble with the law.
My views are driven by my own experience and by research from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization of 5,000 law enforcement leaders. Reports from the organization paint a stark and compelling picture of what happens when disadvantaged kids are left out of quality preschool programs.
One study compared the experiences of children who did or did not participate in a Chicago program and found that nonparticipants were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18. Participants were 40 percent less likely to be placed in special education and 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school by age 20.
Those who did not participate in a similar program in Michigan were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers by the age of 27, while participants were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school.
As a resident of New Hampshire, you should be concerned that we are one of only nine states that does not have a state preschool program. This is terrible news for parents who cannot afford private preschool in our state.
The good news is that New Hampshire stands to benefit significantly from a proposed state-federal partnership, the bipartisan Strong Start for America’s Children Act – that would give states the resources to create, strengthen and expand access to high-quality preschool programs. The proposal comes at a pivotal time – in 2013 alone Republican and Democratic governors of 25 states proposed and/or signed into law significant expansions of their preschool programs.
This is a smart move, based on recent studies of numerous state preschool programs from New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina and others. The studies showed a range of benefits for participating kids, including a lower need for special education, fewer developmental delays, and significant gains in mathematics and literacy that lasted well into the elementary school years. These outcomes demonstrate a clear connection to long-term academic success, which every policymaker should support.
Taking advantage of this proposal is also a wise economic decision. A well-respected, independent analysis of more than 20 different studies of preschool programs for at-risk kids showed they can return, on average, a “profit” to society of $15,000 for every child served, based on lower crime, welfare, special education and other taxpayer-funded costs.
If you have any further doubt about the link between educational achievement and crime, consider the fact that seven out of 10 people incarcerated in state prisons don’t have a high school diploma. Expanding access to quality preschool will change this statistic, giving more children a foundation for academic success today and reducing crime and its costs in the years to come.
(Scott E. Hilliard is the sheriff of Merrimack County.)