For law enforcement, a force multiplier is something that makes them more efficient and effective.
“Early learning is a force multiplier for the education system,” said Laura Wells, director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Washington. “It makes their job easier, it makes their resources go farther.”
More and more research is showing early learning can be a force multiplier for law enforcement as well. A long-term study in Michigan followed a group of children who attended a high-quality preschool program, and another group that did not, for more than 40 years.
That study found the children who did not attend preschool were five times more likely to be chronic offenders by age 27, and by age 40, were more than twice as likely to have more than 10 arrests.
Other studies have found high school dropouts were eight times more likely to be incarcerated, and that a 10 percent gain in male graduation rates leads to a 20 percent drop in murders and violent assaults.
Pacific County law enforcement and early education leaders gathered at the South Bend Early Learning Center on Tuesday to talk about the impacts of early learning on the criminal justice system, then share story time with the students.
Wells joined Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson, Undersheriff Todd Fosse, Prosecutor David Burke, Raymond Police Department Chief Chuck Spoor, South Bend Police Department Chief Dave Eastham, state Sen. Brian Hatfield and state Rep. Brian Blake.
“All 39 sheriffs are on board with this,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty rare that we can all sit in a room and agree on an issue.”
“If you look at the clientele that I deal with, many of them have not graduated high school,” Burke said. “If they have, they were not good students, they don’t get meaningful employment. We prosecute people, we put them in jail, and you say, ‘What a waste, this didn’t have to happen.’ … It’s a frustration for me that I can do my job and it doesn’t really solve the problem. If we invest more up-front, we’ll have better outcomes.”
Spoor, who also serves on the South Bend School District board, noted his district has long invested in early learning.
“It’s definitely going to save us money in the long run. It’s not going to be next year, but if everyone in the state invests in early learning the way South Bend has, when we see these kids 20, 30 years down the road, we’re not going to be incarcerating them at the same rate,” he said.
“I think it’s self-evident that the earlier you get to these kids, and get them in a safe environment, the better off they’ll be,” said Eastham, who also serves on the school board.
In South Bend, he added, about two-thirds of elementary students are on free or reduced lunch, but the graduation rate for the district is about 97 percent.
“A lot of them are actually raising themselves,” Eastham said, “and yet we still have a higher GPA and are really successful, and a lot of the credit goes to this establishment.”
Blake said part of the challenge of continuing to make real investment in early learning programs around the state is budgeting in terms of election cycles.
“I think it’s important for all of you to hold us accountable when they start talking about not making these investments, because it’s absolutely critical,” Blake said. “I’m glad that we made those investments, and I’m sad that we had to walk back from them because of the recession. But those investments, the elected officials won’t see those results in two or four years, we’ll see those outcomes 20, 30 years down the road when we’re not building more prisons, and instead that money has gone to expanding our universities and building better schools and parks.”
Hatfield noted that the state Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary vs. Washington has put enormous pressure on the Legislature to fund K-12 education specifically.
“McCleary is giving us possibly a $2 billion problem,” Hatfield said. “Yet we can’t say we don’t have $2 billion. If it’s not in that K-12 definition, it’s probably not going to get the higher priority.”
At the same time, advocacy from the law enforcement community can have a strong impact, he added.
“Twenty folks in uniform showing up to Ways and Means to support it — it’s tough to find a more effective lobby group. You’ve already got the folks on the education side, but to come at it from the other side, like the prosecutor said, and saying you can lower our workload by doing this” adds a compelling argument, Hatfield said.
That’s exactly what her non-profit advocacy organization seeks to do, Wells said.
“We bring the voice of an unexpected messenger to the discussions,” she said. “We have absolutely helped strengthen the bipartisan support for early learning. Our members are the most influential to people on the conservative end of the spectrum.”
Ultimately, Wells said she hopes to show lawmakers early learning education upholds the spirit of the McCleary decision and the state’s constitutional mandate to provide quality education.
“I would argue that they can’t take advantage of that good education if they’re two years behind,” she said.