Guest column: Investing now in children pays long-term dividends

By Bonnie Dumanis

San Diego County

District Attorney

Leaders in the Assembly and Senate have introduced the Kindergarten Readiness Act (SB 837), which would expand and streamline our early education programs in order to more effectively serve young children in California. The legislation would provide at least one year of transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds; low-income children would be eligible for two years.

The bill is certainly a step in the right direction. Children who participate in high-quality early education programs are much more likely to graduate from high school, which in turn decreases their likelihood of criminal involvement. In fact, one study found that kids left out of one quality preschool program were 39 percent more likely to go to jail or prison than participating children from similar backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the American Institute for Research estimates only 41 percent of eligible low-income 3- and 4-year-olds in San Diego County are enrolled in federal and state-funded preschool programs. And only a quarter of all 4-year-olds are currently eligible for transitional kindergarten. Researchers estimate that if we could increase graduation rates by 10 percentage points, murders and assaults would fall by 20 percent. This could ultimately prevent 15 murders and more than 1,500 aggravated assaults in San Diego County each year, simply by graduating more students.

Our current system leaves too many children failing in school, turning to crime, and winding up in prison — all at a huge cost to California taxpayers. According to Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a research-based organization that I am proud to be a part of, increasing our investment in high-quality early education could save $1.1 billion per year by reducing the prison population by 13,000 prisoners. Economists estimate that every dollar invested in early education provides up to $16 in benefits overall, not only in reduced crime but from reduced use of special education, increased graduation rates, higher income levels, and the resulting increase in tax revenues.

All of this research confirms what we’ve learned from experience: The earlier we intervene, the better off our children will fare in the long run. Instead of relying just on arrests and incarceration, we need to focus upstream and help create early learners who take pride in becoming strong students.

2014 is poised to be a momentous year for early childhood education — both at the state and federal levels. In California, early education for all 4-year-olds will lead more kids to success in school, increase high school graduation rates, and save taxpayers millions of dollars for years to come. The path is clear: Investing in early childhood education is the safest, most secure path toward the future.

   
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