Investing in Maine’s youngest citizens should be a priority

15 years ago

To the editor:
    Now that the 2008 elections are behind us, our state and federal elected leaders will face challenging tasks ahead. As our members of Congress and legislators grapple with a weakening economy, budget deficits and need to make hard choices about policy priorities, it is imperative that we all understand the tremendous return on investment generated by high quality early education programs.
    As law enforcement leaders, we know from our own experience what research is now showing to be true — that it is critical to help kids get a good start in life at the very earliest age. At-risk children need high quality programs like Head Start, Early Head Start, Pre-Kindergarten and quality child care. Head Start is the nation’s premier pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-old underprivileged children. Such programs provide vulnerable children with solid social and educational foundations, and also have dramatic economic and crime prevention benefits.
    One of our nation’s longest running studies on the outcomes of high quality early care and education has followed low-income, at-risk children from Chicago for several years. 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. Another similar preschool study in Michigan showed that children left out of the program were five times more likely to become chronic lawbreakers as adults than the children who participated.
    These studies also indicate that the youngsters who had these high quality early learning experiences have strong educational outcomes, including higher graduation rates and lower special education needs.
    Just as important, especially in these economic times, these programs save money. A 2007 report by Fight Crime: Invest In Kids estimates a $10 benefit for every dollar spent in Maine on high quality Head Start. 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.
    Despite these successes, most at risk children in Maine have no access to these programs. In Maine, 83 percent of our 3-year-olds and 59 percent of our 4-year olds are not enrolled in state pre-K programs, Head Start or early childhood special education programs.
    Many might wonder why police chiefs and sheriffs are becoming involved in early childhood initiatives. After decades in law enforcement, we know that we must do things differently. The concept of community policing changed law enforcements role from a reactionary one to one of progressive problem solvers who confront problems at their source. Early education is one of the solutions that makes good practical sense and exemplifies our community policing values. The ability to confront problems in the earliest years of a child’s life is key to ensuring that child goes on to be a successful and productive member of society.
    We also know from our colleagues across Maine that what affects others in towns and counties throughout Maine impacts us all. We all share the burden of shouldering the costs associated with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. These costs continue to grow rapidly.
    Although we in law enforcement continue to make Maine a safe place to live, we are not yet effectively changing the root of problems we continue to experience year after year. Criminal behavior is not a genetic flaw, it is a learned behavior created by each individual’s life’s journey from birth to adulthood. It makes good sense to look at changing how we do business to combat these profound problems at the earliest ages possible, as we can through quality early childhood education for all at-risk children.
Fight Crime:Invest in Kids board
Houlton: Chief Butch Asselin
Van Buren: Chief Michael Bresett
Presque Isle: Chief Naldo Gagnon
Caribou: Chief Michael Gahagan
Aroostook County Sheriff: James Madore
Ashland: Chief Cyr Martin
Madawaska: Chief Ronald Pelletier