Huntsville Times Editorial by John Peck: Investing in our children; education now, or prisons later?
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama: A flurry of robberies and burglaries here lately begs a question: Would criminals have chosen a different life path if they had been given better foundations as children?
Without details, no one can say for sure. Kids with good upbringings turn out bad, just like kids brought up in bad circumstances turn out good.
A study released Thursday by the nonpartisan Fight Crime: Invest in Kids organization did find a stronger likelihood for criminal behavior among children without a pre-K foundation compared to those with.
The study showed that states could save millions of dollars in future prison and crime costs by investing more in pre-K education. Alabama spent $17.6 million for pre-K education in 2011 and spent $605 million to house, feed and guard its criminals.
A 2011 analysis by the national Children's Defense Fund said Alabama spent $7,683 per public school student (ranking Alabama 41st in the nation) versus $12,545 the state spent for each prisoner.
The new Fight Crime report, entitled, "Pay Now or Pay Much More Later," details research that followed the fates of children over several decades.
While other factors are at play, including parental involvement, stability in the home, and outside influences, the research showed that high quality pre-kindergarten education can significantly reduce the chances of committing crimes.
The study found that by age 26, children who did not get pre-K education were 27 percent more likely to have a felony arrest and 39 percent more likely to have spent time in jail or prison compared to children who got high-quality pre-K education.
Another recent study by the Perry Preschool Project found a similar correlation.
And research by the Department of Justice said Georgia doled out almost $18,000 a year last year to house one inmate in a state prison. But the National Education Association said Georgia spent about one-third that much per student in the public education system.
A stronger pre-K program is not a cure-all for Alabama's crime problem. There are a host of social, charitable and church-based programs offering help. Where those are lacking, pre-K programs can provide a nurturing environment for those who do not receive that at home. They can also provide nutritious meals and health screening, and link services to low-income families who are doing their best to raise their kids
Critics of an expanded pre-K argue it's not the place of government to be a "nanny." We agree. But it's also heartless to turn our backs on children who, by no choice of their own, do not have involved parents or stable home environments.
One encouraging note is that Alabama is one of only 10 states with pre-K programs that meet all 10 quality benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Limited funding, however, enables the state to reach only 6 percent of Alabama 4-year-olds.
Huntsville schools recently added pre-K to 14 schools, targeting children eligible for free or reduced price meals. Time will tell if early-learning programs such as this help reduce the state's prison population.
It will put to the test the theory that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
By John Peck for the editorial board. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org