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Why Preschool for Poor Kids Can't Just Be a Crime-Prevention Strategy

Educating poor children is not a priority, unless perhaps it stops them from growing up to be lawbreakers.

It was a potent image. Five of Pennsylvania's top prosecutors lined up outside a state prison in Chester. The presence of so many law enforcement officials usually signals a major criminal indictment or the announcement of expanded crime-fighting efforts. In this case, the district attorneys gathered with a warning for policymakers: Pay now for high-quality preschool education or pay later for prisons.

The same scene was replayed in cities across the country as part of a national campaign led by "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids." The nonprofit groupcomprised of police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecuting attorneysis pushing the idea that investing in early childhood programs for poor and especially poor minority children can help prevent the little tots from becoming career criminals. If there is any question where the emphasis for this benevolent crusade lies, the banner image that the "Fight Crime" Michigan affiliate chose for its homepage makes the audience crystal clear.

Even well-meaning columnists fall into the trap, asking "Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?" This is what education advocacy has come to: supporting quality preschool as an anti-crime strategy. The debate over the value of preschool has raged for decades, joining the long list of partisan fights in education. Every study that finds long-term benefits and cost-savings of investing in early childhood education is attacked by those who think Head Start and preschool programs are a waste of tax money: "free day care under the guise of education."

The irony is that as policymakers, Wall Street Journal op-ed writers, and others question the educational value of pre-K, children from upper-middle-class families are habitually enrolled in preschool because their parents consider it a no-brainer. In reality, the debate is less about whether preschool is a worthy investment or necessary and more about whether poor children are worth the money and effort.

In New York City, the intense competition for preschools is the stuff of folklore, with parents putting their names on waitlists while the child is still in utero. Manhattanites scramble fiercely to get their children into the most prestigious preschoolsestimates are 15 to 20 applicants for every spot. One infamous case involved a Wall Street analyst and $1 million donation made under slightly dubious circumstances just to guarantee entry into an exclusive Upper East Side school.

Since multimillionaires with nannies at their disposal aren't desperate for day care, it's safe to assume that the social elite view preschool as vital to their children's future success. For poor students, the preschool discussion always centers on worthiness (a waste of resources); feasibility (too expensive); or dire possibilities (preventing youngsters from becoming felons). For affluent parents, preschool is never up for dispute. They game the system and finagle their way into the "right" preschool, recognizing that it forges a path to positive educational outcomes.

What's so poignant about this contrast is that while all children may benefit from preschool, preschool can be a lifeline for disadvantaged children. Following up on research two decades ago that found children from low-income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by age three, a new study finds that the "language gap" can now be seen as early as 18 months-old. In the homes of wealthy professionals, the non-stop chatter and bedtime stories help grow their children's vocabulary skills. For poor preschool-aged children, quality early education programs can close this learning gap.

Yet the research continues to be ignored and refuted. Because educating poor children is not a priority, unless perhaps it stops them from growing up to be lawbreakers. That is the heart of the prosecutor's anti-crime preschool campaign: all of the focus on pathology, none on potential. That is the core of many pro-preschool arguments—this Sophie's choice between preschools or prisons. While child and education activists, armed with volumes of data, continue to point out that investing in preschool can make a huge difference in a poor child's success in school and life, the debate drags on, with little progress. Maybe "loosen the purse strings or they'll grow up, knock you upside the head and steal your purse" is a more compelling message.

Educate these children to level the playing field, no thanks. Educate them or else they'll be criminals, ears perk up. It amounts to the Willie Hortonization of education policy. It is a sickening indictment of our national priorities. It just might work.

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Big Idea: Universal Pre-K to Teach Children and Create Jobs

If we made the effort to reach the majority of toddlers who don't have access to early education, we'd reap benefits across the board.

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The snarky back-and-forth of the 2012 presidential campaign may be entertaining, but this is our once-every-four-years chance to mix it up over the big challenges the United States is facing. We're launching the Campaign for Big Ideas to make the run for the White House smarter, bolder, and a lot more ambitious.

It might surprise you to learn that only 58 percent of 3-to-5-year-old Americans are enrolled in any type of organized child care or early education program. The number is even lower—just 51 percent—among poor children. And less than a quarter of American kids attend preschools led by certified teachers; children in less school-like child care settings, like day care centers or in-home care, are often looked after by caretakers earning an average of less than $10 per hour, most of whom have no formal training in education or child development. Research shows that over the past two decades, the education level and salary of early child care workers have consistently declined.

Meanwhile, in cities like New York and San Francisco, the children of the elite vie for seats in top private preschools, which charge as much tuition as private colleges and employ teachers who hold college and graduate degrees.

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