Early childhood investments pay off in societal benefits

TRIB LIVE – In this election year, we are hearing a lot of debate on issues like state budget structural deficits, rising costs of social services, workforce skills gap, cost of education — the list goes on and on. For many of these issues, the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” rings true. This “ounce of prevention” can come in the form of ensuring more Pennsylvania children have access to high-quality early childhood education.

The state budget recently passed in Harrisburg includes a $25 million expansion for high-quality pre-K. While the 2018-19 budget grew by 1.7 percent, the pre-K funding increased by 11 percent.

According to a report from the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Pennsylvania’s future prison population can be trimmed down considerably — while yielding significant savings for every child served in societal benefits over their lifetimes — with this investment that will allow access to thousands more at-risk children. This is believable when you consider that Pennsylvania’s state and local governments spend roughly $3.2 billion per year incarcerating adults (about $43,000 per inmate in the state corrections system).

To many in the criminal justice system, it is apparent that education attainment is often the deciding factor between productive, contributing citizens and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

According to a new survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections of all incoming male inmates during January 2018, nearly 40 percent of incoming state prisoners did not graduate from high school. Nationwide, that figure climbs to 60 percent.

Additionally, the survey showed that difficulty reading in elementary school was a substantial indicator of future juvenile criminal behavior. Inmates who experienced this difficulty were 14 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile compared to those who said they did not have early reading difficulty.

The bottom line is that we need our youth to be educated, not incarcerated, and that process starts early.

High-quality pre-kindergarten offers enrichment that “wires” the rapidly developing young brain for later learning and social skills. Consistent research demonstrates that quality early learning programs reduce disadvantages and result in fewer behavior problems, improve school outcomes, increase high school graduation rates and reduce criminal activity.

For example, participants in Michigan’s state-funded pre-K program, the Great Start Readiness Program, were held back in school 51 percent less often than nonparticipants. Additionally, this program reported a 35 percent increase in graduation rates among children served. Longer- term pre-K studies of the Chicago Child Parent Center Program show people served by the program were 20 percent less likely to have served time in a jail or prison.

As such, quality pre-K can return to society an average “profit” in economic benefits minus costs of more than $34,000 for every child served, according to a cost-benefit analysis of nearly 20 different studies. These economic benefits accrue over the lifetime of these children largely because of reductions in the cost of future crime and increases in participants’ future wages, as well as decreases in other costs to society such as children being held back in school or receiving special education.

Expanding access to high-quality publicly funded pre-K has widespread bipartisan support in Harrisburg that has yielded funding increases in each of the past six state budgets. Even with these increases, additional investment is urgently needed. In Allegheny County, more than half (52 percent) of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access to publicly funded pre-K. Statewide, that number climbs to 61 percent — or more than 106,000 eligible children — who miss out on this important educational opportunity every year.

Pennsylvania has many expensive, back-end solutions for people who unfortunately go down the wrong path. But we agree that investing in prevention is far wiser in the long run. This is why the increase was included in this year’s state budget for high-quality pre-K and should continue to be a priority for the commonwealth in the years ahead.

William Mullen is sheriff of Allegheny County. Guy Reschenthaler is a Republican state senator representing the 37th district.

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