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Guest column: Early learning prevents high school dropout and crime
By Kitsap County Sheriff Stephen Boyer and Port Orchard Chief of Police Alan Townsend
Last month in Kitsap County and across the state, thousands of students graduated from high school. Families are celebrating this important educational milestone with their sons and daughters and are looking forward to taking the next step on their life’s journey, be it post-secondary education, public service or a job. These young men and women have bright futures and the promise of being productive, contributing members of society.
Unfortunately for every three who graduate, there is one who does not. According to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the average graduation rate across the state is 72 percent. This is a situation that greatly concerns us.
Why do a sheriff and a police chief care about high school graduation rates? Because a person’s education level too frequently contributes to the likelihood that they will end up on the wrong side of the law. Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of state prison inmates have not earned a high school diploma.
A report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, called School or the Streets: Crime and Washington’s Dropout Crisis, shows that increasing graduation rates 10 percentage points results in a 20 percent decrease in murder and aggravated assault. In Washington State, this translates to 38 murders and 2,600 aggravated assaults that would be prevented every year.
Research shows that high-quality early learning is an effective strategy to increase graduation rates. Long-term studies of high-quality preschools have found that at-risk kids who do not attend these programs tend to drop out of high school and abuse illegal drugs. They are 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18 and five times more likely to be repeat offenders by age 27.
Conversely, at-risk children who participated in the preschool programs were significantly less likely to end up in the criminal justice system. Attending quality preschool increases the likelihood that children will graduate from high school, pursue higher education, find employment and stay off the welfare rolls.
In Kitsap County, the Bremerton School District’s early childhood education initiative has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of children arriving at kindergarten ready for success. This program has caught the attention of education reform advocates across the state and country.
Law enforcement leaders in Washington State are united by the belief that the solutions to reduce crime are available and policymakers need to implement policies that will keep our communities safe. In these tough economic times, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the legislature are to be commended for minimizing cuts to the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) for low-income children. The next step — which the legislature began in 2009 — is to work with the governor to assure that quality early learning programs are available to those at the greatest risk of school failure by including early learning in our state’s definition of basic education.
We must make sure that more children are on track to graduation day, not a sentencing day in court. Support for early learning is an investment in the future—an investment in better-performing students, a stronger workforce and safer communities. Join us by fighting crime by investing in kids.