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Funding pre-K and fighting crime

Resource type: News


If you’re among the considerable number of New Jerseyans who question the value of taxpayer-funded preschool education, you may want to take note of some astonishing statistics reported in Trenton yesterday.

Fight Crime; Invest in Kids, a national nonprofit anti-crime organization of 4,500 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and violence survivors, unveiled a report touting the results of several studies contrasting violence and crime among children enrolled in early childhood education programs vs. those who were not.

Two such studies, conducted over a 40-year period, are particularly persuasive eye-openers.

The first comes out of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Mich., begun in 1962 to gather data on the lifetime effects of preschool. It involved a group of at-risk, low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, half of whom were randomly enrolled in an education program of one to two years with a home visiting component. The companion group, also randomly selected, received no such program.

Data released in 2004, according to Fight Crime; Invest in Kids vice president Jeff Kirsch, showed that 23 years later, those who had no preschool program were five times more likely to be criminal offenders.

By age 40, according to the report, those not enrolled in the program were “more than twice as likely to become career offenders (with more than 10 arrests) and twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes.”

They also were more likely to abuse illegal drugs, four times more likely to be arrested for drug felonies and seven times more likely to be arrested for possession of dangerous drugs.

Comparable research in another study, conducted in Chicago, showed similar results. That study involved 989 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the city’s federally funded child-parent centers as well as 550 nonparticipants. Comparison of these groups over time showed that those who did not participate in the program were “70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18” and “24 percent more likely to have been incarcerated as young adults.”

The conclusion: The Chicago program “will have prevented an estimated 33,000 crimes by the time the children who have attended the program reach 18.”

That’s a number that will get your attention.

Nationally, these are the programs with the greatest longevity and thus most convincingly demonstrate the impact of pre-K programs for at-risk children. But they are by no means the only such programs.

Low-income children not enrolled in North Carolina’s Smart Start program, for instance, were shown to be twice as likely to engage in “aggressive acts and poor temper control, anxiety and hyperactivity in kindergarten” – behaviors shown to be precursors of “high levels of antisocial and delinquent behavior later in life.”

The long-running, federally funded Head Start programs for low-income 3- to 5-year-olds have consistently shown that adults who attended them as children “are less likely to commit crimes than adults from similar backgrounds who did not attend.”

It’s long been understood that high-quality preschool programs for children who would otherwise get little preparatory training can make an enormous difference in their ability to succeed in school, which in turn makes them far more likely to become successful adults.

What has not been touted sufficiently is that such programs, by providing toddlers with a strong foundation of learning and socialization skills, can also help reduce crime.

“Law enforcement understands this, having dealt with parts of society most of us don’t deal with very often,” says Kirsch. He emphasizes that his group’s members “are very conservative people who don’t approach this from let’s-help-these-poor-kids. They’re hard-nosed realists dealing with very tough populations. They understand kids become who they are based on what happens to them in their early years, and if we miss that, we pay for many years to come.”

He concedes the early education approach is not a quick fix.

“We’re not saying every kid who gets pre-K is going to stay on the straight and narrow, nor that any kid who doesn’t is going to be a criminal. But pre-K for at-risk kids changes the odds.”

Here in New Jersey, there has been an abundance of public resentment at spending tax dollars on such programs. But without public programs, pre-K education simply won’t happen for most low-income children.

“It’s very, very expensive for families to afford quality pre-K,” says Kirsch.

Many government programs are promoted as “investments,” and it’s true that some pay off better than others. Looking at this new data, it’s hard to argue that pre-K isn’t one of the smartest things we can do with our public dollars.

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