Local public officials take time to ‘Invest in Kids,’ support early childhood programs

PUNXSUTAWNEY — A number of state and local politicians and officials, including Punxsutawney Borough Police Chief Tom Fedigan, Jefferson County Sheriff Carl Gotwald, Punxsutawney Mayor James Wehrle and State Senator Joseph Scarnati, the Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore, visited the Punxsutawney Pre-K Counts classroom at the community center on Monday to support early childhood programs and to read to the children.

Also present were Karen Ray, the Jefferson County Pre-K Counts director, and Bruce Clash, the state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

Previously, Fedigan and Gotwald had called upon state lawmakers to expand early childhood education programs, particularly for at-risk children, in the belief that it would ultimately lower crime and save taxpayer dollars in the end.

Both are members of Fight Crime.

Gotwald said he has seen the need for this in his own experience as the county sheriff.

"The numbers are just astronomical from when I started to today," he said. "We may not have transported anybody to court back then, and today, we'll have thirty or more individuals on a court day just transporting them into court, plus people who aren't in jail who are walking in off the street."

The idea that early childhood education helps prevent crime and save the state money was supported by a research brief distributed at the gathering, entitled "High Quality Early Care and Education: A Key to Reducing Future Crime in Pennsylvania."

At present, the overall crime rate in Pennsylvania is actually decreasing in a number of jurisdictions. Nevertheless, the state also has one of the fastest growing prison populations in the entire nation, spread across the last several years.

The state is currently spending $1.86 billion — roughly 7 percent of the state budget — to house more than 50,000 inmates at a cost of about $35,000 per person per year.

This represents more than a 1,880 percent increase from 1980, where Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spending sat at about $94 million annually.

The evidence contained in the report suggests that an intensified focus on early childhood education may help to alleviate this situation in the long term.

"I think programs like these are the reason why we see our number of juveniles slowly declining over the years," Fedigan said, in reference to Punxsutawney's Youth Commission program, which offers first-time juvenile offenders alternatives other than the legal system. He said the number of kids going through that program has become less and less.

A long-term study of Michigan's Perry Preschool that honed in on at-risk children found that those who did not participate were five times more likely to be chronic offenders by the age of 27. They were 80 percent more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison by the age of 40.

Another study, a longitudinal one of Chicago's Child-Parent Centers, demonstrated that at-risk children who were non-participants were 39 percent more likely to have spent time in jail or prison between the ages of 18 and 26.

Other research has shown that children who did participate in these programs were up to 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

Clash added a few other statistics, such as that kids who are left out of Pre-K are 70 percent more likely to commit a violent crime by the age of 15 and are five times more likely to become lawbreakers by the age of 18. He said they are also more likely to go on to drug abuse.

"One of the big outcomes of high quality programs like Pre-K/Head Start is behavior changes that happen, the values that are getting instilled early in a child's life," Clash said. He explained that children between the ages of roughly two to five are at a stage in life when their brains are at the peak of their development — the conscience is forming, attitudes toward authority are setting in, social behaviors are solidifying, etc.

Clash added that a study of 10,000 kids, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, who were on the precursor program to Pre-K Counts showed that 21 percent of the low income, most at-risk children in the program had a mental health behavioral diagnosis strong enough to warrant special education and that by the time they got through the program, that number was down to 3 percent.

Clash said that this was a positive development, as research shows that 60 percent of kids who display destructive and aggressive behaviors early in life will go on to become delinquent as they grow older.

"It's important to try to keep prisoners in alternative treatments and things, but we're still trying to work the front end," Clash said. "The more we can get kids off to a better start, the less the system's going to have to deal with ... We've got to stop getting people in the system in the first place."

Ray said that such programs have an educational benefit as well.

"Children who go to kindergarten and first grade without that preschool experience are behind," she said.

However, the report also shows that, even given that level funding was maintained for early childhood education in this year's state budget, only about 17.6 percent of the state's three- and four-year-old children are currently enrolled in high quality programs.

Gotwald and Fedigan thanked Scarnati for some of his efforts in maintaining that level funding.

"The senator was instrumental in this most recent year in making level funding for Pre-K Counts," Clash said.

Scarnati has worked in the state senate to ensure that early childhood education programs such as Pre-K Counts would remain level funded for the 2012-2013 school year.

Pre-K Counts is currently maintained at $82.7 million, with $37.2 million for the Head Start Supplemental Assistance program and $100 million for the Accountability Block Grants, which are used by the school districts for pre-kindergarten and other evidence-based early childhood programs.

The hope is that, if funding is maintained and more children get involved in preschool programs, it will reduce future crime rates and ultimately save the public millions, in addition to making it more secure.

"We've got two major cost drivers in our budget — corrections and the Department of Public Welfare," Scarnati said. "The only real solution to getting kids out of that cycle, the cycle of crime and public welfare, is through education. And Pre-K Counts, I don't think there's a debate anymore about whether it's successful. It is successful. Funding it needs to continue to be a priority."

So far, research has been showing overall societal savings from high quality early childhood education. The Perry Preschool Project was found to have returned an average of over $200,000 per child, with over $80,000 per child coming from the Chicago Parent-Child Centers.

This is because the estimated average cost of a child who goes on to drop out of high school, use drugs and turn to crime — all three, according to the reports, statistically more likely to happen to at-risk children who do not participate in early childhood education programs — is $2.5 million.

Scarnati said that a performance audit is conducted on all of the state's line items individually each fiscal year.

"I'd hate to see these ones get cut," he said, "because they did perform."

Ray thanked Scarnati for his efforts in keeping Pre-K Counts and other programs level funded, but hoped that the state could be persuaded to divert ever more funds into them, citing increases in rent and utility costs, the need to replace old equipment and the difficulty in giving salary raises to teachers, which she said can make it hard to retain skilled 

At present, Fight Crime, which sponsored Monday's event, and its members are working to persuade the Pennsylvania General Assembly, as well as Governor Tom Corbett, to develop a plan expanding early childhood education programs and continue to fund the ones that exist.