One of the most pressing issues with mass incarceration is the school-to-prison pipeline and the current education system. One of the most effective ways at reducing incarceration is ensuring that as many people as possible have access to quality education throughout their lives, beginning as early as possible.
Universal Pre-Kindergarten programs have a range of demonstrable benefits, from ensuring school readiness, to lessening the likelihood of special education needs, to longer term effects such as higher earning potential, and reduced risk of incarceration.
Pre-K programs ensure school readiness, higher levels of literacy and other skills, and works towards reducing the achievement gap. Universal Pre-K is equally as critical. While the earliest Pre-K programs targeted only low income and at-risk children and families - who receive the most benefit from these programs - Universal Pre-K has benefits for middle and upper class children as well. Integration in these programs also ensures that a broad range of demographics are brought together, reducing segregation based on wealth or race, and reducing prejudice.
Integrated programs also ensure increased critical thinking, less work needed in public outreach, increased support for early education, and increased quality of programs.
Those students who attend preschool exhibit a wide range of benefits. Besides initial school readiness, the effects can still be seen years later academically on test scores, students are less likely to drop out of high school, or have to repeat a grade. The likelihood to commit crime is reduced, and earning potential is much higher than for those who did not attend- as much as $50,000.
There is also more likelihood of owning a home, and there are health benefits too. A more educated workforce also means less poverty in a community, more earning potential, and more public revenue. Children are not the only ones who see the direct benefits of preschool, as parents are then able to work and earn additional income, particularly mothers.
High-quality preschool programs also significantly reduce the achievement gap, which is important for the most at-risk students. For African-American children the gap in math is reduced 45%, and 78% for Hispanic children, and the reading gap essentially ceases to exist.
Returns on public investment are as high as $16 to $1, with even conservative estimates suggesting a return of $7 to $1. An MIT analysis suggests that for every $1 spent on pre-k programs, this saves tax payers $13 on future costs, and generates $3 in economic value.
Currently, out of 51 state funded programs in 39 states, only 8 are universal, with the others focusing on low income and at risk children. This is a good start, but universal Pre-Kindergarten, while expensive up front, will pay off in the long run.
We need to ensure that this is implemented fairly across all states, with truly universal access, and that the programs are high quality, with demonstrable outcomes and goals, and with qualified, and properly supported, teachers. The benefits speak for themselves in not only direct benefits to children, but to the long term social and financial benefits to the community as a whole, increasing literacy and math skills, reducing incarceration rates and prejudice, and increasing earning potential.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com