Recently I was pleased to join statewide business, community, education and public policy leaders at the Governor’s Economic Summit on Early Childhood. As a group, we examined both science-based and economic frameworks for early childhood policy in Maine. Summit participants questioned why Maine spends the least state resources on our future generation at the exact time our youngest citizens are developing 85 percent of their brain growth and the neurological circuitry that will guide their academic, cognitive, social, behavioral and moral growth throughout their lives.
It was a fascinating and timely discussion. As our state leaders grapple with yet another budget deficit and need to make hard choices about policy priorities, it is wise to look at the return on investment for early childhood programs.
Research and my experience have shown that it is critical to help kids get the correct start in life at the very earliest age. High quality programs like Head Start, Early Head Start, Pre-Kindergarten and quality child care provide our nation’s most vulnerable children with solid social and educational foundations and also have dramatic crime prevention benefits.
One of our nation’s longest running studies on the outcomes of high quality early care and education have followed the low-income, at-risk children who attended the Chicago Child-Parent Centers since 1967. Decades of research show that similar at-risk children who were left out of this program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by the time they are 18 years old. In another similar longitudinal study of Michigan’s High/Scope Perry preschool program, children who were left out of the program were five times more likely to become chronic lawbreakers as adults than the children who participated.
These studies also show that high quality early learning experiences have strong education benefits as well, including higher graduation rates and lower special education needs.
Despite these successes, only 32 percent of Maine’s low-income children who are eligible to participate in Head Start (the program for 3- and 4-year olds) and Early Head Start (the program from birth-to-age-three) due to lack of funding. Only 16 percent of Maine’s 4-year-olds are in state Pre-K programs. A report released last year by the national anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest In Kids found that fully funding Head Start would prevent as many as 150 Maine children from becoming criminals each year because of the multi-year impact of that early year or two of education.
It would also save Maine money. Fight Crime: Invest In Kids estimates a $10 benefit for every dollar spent on high quality Head Start in Maine. This is money saved from future special education, grade retention and criminal justice expenses, as well as the tangible costs to crime victims. Head Start graduates are also more likely to have increased lifetime earnings than peers who lack a quality pre-kindergarten experience.
If Maine could offer high quality Head Start to all eligible children, the result in total benefits would be $400 million over the Head Start participants’ lifetime.
The infants and toddlers of today are Maine’s workers, business, community and state leaders in the years 2030 and beyond. As a law enforcement leader I want each and every Maine child to reach his or her maximum potential and not end up in our custody.
For Maine’s law enforcement community, the crime-prevention benefits of investing in Head Start, Early Head Start, Pre-K and quality child care are impossible to ignore. Almost every law enforcement officer who has patrolled a beat or worked in a jail has watched children progress from minor behavior problems in elementary school to more serious juvenile offenses to adult felonies.
We must cut off that pipeline that keeps feeding very young people into the criminal justice system. Investing in high quality early learning programs should be a state budget priority.