Seeking Safety: Can preschool help fight crime?
Posted July 27, 2014
Tulsa, Okla. — Mercedes Carmona raves about Tulsa’s pre-kindergarten program.
Carmona’s youngest daughter, 5-year-old April, is about to enter the program at Kendall Whittier Elementary School. April’s sister, Milly, has already been through it.
“They learn fast,” said Carmona, a stay-at-home mom who volunteers at the school. “They learn their ABCs faster, numbers, and they become good kids. They know the rules. They listen.”
Years of research supports what Carmona knows firsthand. Most children who participate in early education programs are more prepared for kindergarten – academically, socially and emotionally – than those who don’t. Studies have indicated that early education translates into higher graduation rates, better paying jobs and a lower tendency to get in trouble with the law.
Yet fewer than three in 10 children in America are enrolled in preschool programs.
That is not the case in Oklahoma, one of three states to provide universal early childhood education. Oklahoma passed a law in 1998 that offers a education to every 4-year-old, regardless of family income. Today, 74 percent of Oklahoma’s children take advantage of the law.
Tulsa, a city of almost 400,000, goes even further, due in large part to George Kaiser. He is a Tulsa native who made billions of dollars in oil and banking and has turned early childhood education into a personal crusade, largely because he believes it helps level the playing field for poor people.
Among the programs funded through the Kaiser Family Foundation is Educare, the gold standard for early childhood education.
“Educare is like a Head Start on steroids,” said Dr. Noreen Yazejian, a research scientist at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. “They have raised the level.”
Tulsa has three of the 20 Educare centers in the country, more than any other city. The three centers provide preschool education to 536 disadvantaged children from infants to age 5.
The Fayetteville Observer traveled to Tulsa this month as part of “Seeking Safety,” the newspaper’s yearlong project examining the way communities are attacking crime problems.
Although researchers lack conclusive evidence that early childhood education programs keep people away from crime years later, there is mounting data that they are an effective tool for blunting some of the school and socialization problems that can lead to troubled youths.
The evidence is so influential that more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, victims’ families and others in law enforcement across the country have joined the advocacy group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
According to the group’s website: “America’s anti-crime arsenal contains no weapons more powerful than the effective programs that help kids get the right start in life. ... Yet, despite decades of growing research proving what works, inadequate investments leave millions of children needlessly at risk of becoming delinquent teens and violent adults while putting every American at greater risk of becoming a victim of crime.”
Study after study has found that early childhood education can have a profound effect on the life of a child hampered by poverty, language barriers, an unstable home, developmental or behavioral problems, and other struggles.
The most recognized research is the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which tracked 123 disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds who attended an intensive preschool program in Michigan between 1962 and 1967.
The study compared the HighScope children’s progress with a control group at various stages of their lives. The most recent report, in 2005, looked at how the HighScope group had progressed at age 40.
Among other benefits of early childhood education, the study found that those attending the HighScope Perry program:
- Had significantly fewer arrests for violent crimes, property crimes and drug crimes.
- Were more likely to be high school graduates than those in the control group.
- Were more likely to be employed. The HighScope participants earned $5,000 more annually, on average, and more of them owned their own homes.
A similar study called the Carolina Abecedarian Project was conducted by the University of North Carolina in the 1970s. Among that study’s findings: Participants in early childhood programs were less likely to have been on welfare and were almost four times more likely to have graduated from college.
The HighScope study found a $12.90 savings to society for every $1 spent on the program. Most of the savings relate to the reduction in male participants growing up to commit crimes.
Cost-to-benefit ratios from other studies run the gamut, from as little as $3 saved for every dollar spent to as much as $17.
Two decades ago, North Carolina was a national leader in early childhood education programs, thanks in large part to then-Gov. Jim Hunt.
In 1993 – shortly after being elected governor for his third term – Hunt unveiled Smart Start, legislation that became a national model for preschool programs.
Hunt, a Democrat, still praises Smart Start and the local partnerships that carry out the work.
“Helping children have good care and developing appropriate opportunities from birth on is still absolutely vital,” said Hunt, who is 77.
Hunt is often referred to as North Carolina’s education governor. In his fourth term, he raised teacher pay from 44th-lowest in the country to 19th. He remains chairman of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, an affiliate of UNC.
Hunt recognizes that funding cuts have since hurt early childhood education in this state. He blames the economy, not partisan politics, saying Republicans in power in the state are committed to preschool programs.
“But it’s time for another boost in the funding and the activities to help children become the best they can be,” he said. “Nothing is more important than children being successful in school, making good grades, graduating. If you want to be successful in K through 12, children have to have the right exposure before they start school.”
Hunt suggested that communities share in the funding responsibility, similar to how it’s done in Tulsa. He said it is going to take a lot more money.
“I would say we are not more than halfway to where we need to be to fund Smart Start,” Hunt said.
North Carolina does not appear poised to boost investment in early childhood programs. Instead, the cuts of recent years are continuing.
In 2009, the state spent $194 million on the Smart Start preschool program. The funding dropped to $140 million this fiscal year, a 28 percent decrease in five years.
Funding for NC Pre-K – the state’s public pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children – fell more than $10 million in the past year, to $138 million. Meanwhile, federal and state child care subsidies to support early childhood education dropped from $384 million in 2009 to $318 million this fiscal year.
Last year, a state market rate study found a 21 percent decrease in children attending licensed preschools between 2011 and 2013.
“I think our early childhood education system is doing a great job for the kids that it serves, but there are a whole lot of kids across the state that could really benefit ... and the primary limiting factor at this point is a lack of funding,” said Rob Thompson, a spokesman for the advocacy group NC Child.
More state cuts could be coming. Thompson said the General Assembly is likely to raise income eligibility requirements for child care subsidies under budget proposals being debated now.
That move would exclude from services another 2,130 children up to age 5 and 9,860 children ages 6 to 12, according to the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division.
Those cuts would have consequences for Cumberland County, where a high number of children live in poverty and in single-parent families.
Eva Hansen, executive director of the county’s Smart Start program, said the spending cuts will shuffle more children to substandard day care centers and force more mothers to quit working because they cannot afford child care.
“The early care and education network is crumbling in N.C.,” Hansen said in an email.
The funding cuts come at a time when more children are facing adversity.
According to a report released last week by NC Child and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 59 percent of North Carolina’s children are not attending preschool, 26 percent live in poverty, 37 percent live in single-family homes and 33 percent have parents who lack secure employment. All of those percentages reflect an increase from earlier years.
The report ranked North Carolina 39th in the country in child well-being. The report did find that children are healthier and score better in math and reading than they did a decade earlier.
Smart Start was considered a national model when North Carolina adopted it in 1993. Many states borrowed from the initiative in one form or another.
“In the intervening years, a lot of states have passed North Carolina by,” said Dr. Bill Gormley, a professor at Georgetown University and co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S.
Still, North Carolina continues to have strong programs relative to many states. It ranks 13th in state spending and meets all 10 quality standards established by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Those benchmarks address teacher credentials, classroom size and staff-child ratios.
Few other states meet all of the benchmarks. Oklahoma meets nine of 10, and it ranks 25th in state spending. But Oklahoma makes up for spending with local money and donations. It beats North Carolina in terms of total spending by more than $500 per student. Oklahoma also ranks third-highest in the country in children’s access to quality child care. North Carolina ranks 20th.
At a Tulsa Educare center this month, the children ate seaweed.
The seaweed was part of a lesson about turtles, whose paper likenesses spun from mobiles attached to the ceiling.
The 2-year-old center, Tulsa Educare III-MacArthur, is a $9 million marvel of modern architecture – think ceramic tile, small alcoves and eye-catching ceilings – tucked beside a high school and an elementary school on Tulsa’s east side.
The center serves 164 disadvantaged kids ages 6 weeks to 4 years old – and their families.
Educating the parents as well as the children is a key component of the Educare system, said Caren Calhoun, executive director of Tulsa Educare Inc.
Calhoun said parents must agree to set goals for themselves and their children within 45 days of enrollment in Educare. The parents also must participate in center activities with their children twice a week, and two staff home visits are required each year.
Every Educare classroom is staffed by a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, a second teacher with at least an associate degree and a teacher’s assistant. Classes begin at 7 a.m. and end at 6 p.m., so teachers are not always in the classrooms at the same time.
Educare prides itself on giving the highest-quality early childhood education possible, and research backs its effectiveness.
Since 2005, UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute has evaluated Educare. The research has found that children enrolled in Educare as infants or toddlers, including children with limited proficiency in English, enter kindergarten with the same skills as middle-income children.
But Educare is not cheap. Calhoun said it costs $22,000 to put a child from birth to age 3 through Educare, and half that amount for children ages 3 and 4. The Kaiser Family Foundation pumps millions of dollars into Tulsa’s three Educare centers every year.
Educare is just one component that makes Tulsa stand out for its early childhood education services.
Gormley, the researcher at Georgetown University, said other reasons for Tulsa’s success include a business community that has fully backed early childhood education.
“It’s a great place,” said Gormley, who has been conducting research in Tulsa for nearly 15 years. “They got religion on this subject years ago, and they invested heavily. It’s really paid off.”
The city also has CAP Tulsa, a nonprofit organization that oversees 13 free-standing early education centers on property next to public schools.
Without CAP’s McClure Early Childhood Education Center, William and Julisa Norman said, one of them would probably have to quit work to care for their 3-year-old daughter, Amiya.
Amiya has been enrolled in the center since she was 7 months old.
“You can tell she’s ahead of other kids her age,” Julisa Norman said. “She speaks really clear.”
Steven Dow, executive director of CAP Tulsa, goes back 14 years to paint a broader picture of the effectiveness of preschool programs in his city.
Tulsa has an expanding population of Hispanic residents, who now make up about 40 percent of the 2,100 children attending CAP centers. That presents obstacles because many of the children don’t speak English when they enroll in the program.
The language barrier became such a problem for educators that Tulsa Public Schools created an English immersion school in 2000 for Hispanic-speaking students, Dow said.
The school closed about five years later because there was no longer a need, Dow said.
“They were coming into first and second grade able to speak and be taught English,” he said.
Gormley’s research found that Hispanic children in Tulsa’s preschools whose parents primarily spoke Spanish at home scored 12 months ahead of a control group in reading, 4 months better in writing and 10 months better in math.
In addition to Educare and CAP Tulsa, 4-year-olds are educated in Tulsa County’s elementary schools through Oklahoma’s universal preschool program.
The program is similar to NC Pre-K, except that it reaches 74 percent of the state’s children. NC Pre-K reaches only children deemed at risk – or 23 percent of 4-year-olds.
Lisa Williams is the team leader for the 4-year-old preschool classes at Kendall Whittier Elementary. Williams, who holds a master’s degree in urban education, says all children benefit socially and academically when their class includes kids from different economic backgrounds. They learn from one another, she said, and are ready by the time they head off to kindergarten.
In his State of the Union address last year, President Obama singled out Oklahoma and called for a federal-state partnership that would create universal early childhood education nationwide.
“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Obama said in his speech. “In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
In November, a bill was introduced in the House and Senate – the Strong Start for America’s Children Act – that is based largely on Obama’s recommendations. The bill passed a Senate committee in May by a vote of 12-10.
The split vote illustrates that not everyone is a fan of universal preschool. Critics are quick to single out Oklahoma, noting that its math and reading scores are lower than the national average and below where they were 20 years ago. And the crime rate remains higher in Tulsa than in Fayetteville.
Some critics point to the Head Start Impact Study of 2012, which found “clear impacts on the types and quality of children’s child care, early education, and school experiences at the preschool level but not in the early elementary grades.”
The study found no significant differences in third-grade proficiency tests for children who attended Head Start and those who didn’t.
For those and other reasons, many critics question whether universal preschool education is worth the investment.
Gormley and Diane Horm, a child-education researcher at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, don’t dismiss the critics’ contention that the benefits of a preschool education may fade after the children reach elementary school.
But Horm argues that the research shows substantial benefits for children when they enter kindergarten. Blame the public schools for the fade-out, not the preschools, she says.
Gormley takes it a step further, noting that not all Head Start programs are created equal and that public school funding in Oklahoma ranks 47th in the nation.
Gormley said his research shows that Head Start programs, such as those in Tulsa, have led to improvements on third-grade proficiency tests.
A Duke University study published last year found similar gains for children attending NC Pre-K and Smart Start.
“The findings are clearly positive,” the Duke study concluded. “Each program generates average positive effects for reading and math scores in third grade.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, has spent years weighing the cost-benefits of early childhood education, as well as the effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development.
Barnett is in the camp that thinks the benefits of an early education far outweigh the costs.
Barnett points to a study he helped conduct on the effects of the Abbot Preschool program in New Jersey, where 31 impoverished districts – about a quarter of the state’s children – are under court order to improve early childhood education.
The study, published last year, found that science, math and reading test scores in the districts increased significantly.
Barnett also believes that early childhood education can serve as a deterrent to crime.
“It’s not a panacea. It makes a dent in the problem,” he said.
Barnett noted that people in the HighScope Perry Project raised their grade point averages only slightly, on average from about a D to a C. And although they committed fewer crimes, Barnett said, they still committed a lot of them.
But cutting crime by as little as 5 percent still amounts to a “huge cost savings,” Barnett said. The $140 million spent annually on NC Pre-K is “a drop in the bucket” compared with what it saves in crime reduction, he said.
Barnett cautions that it takes more than good preschools to effectively prevent crime.
“Preschool is just one arrow in your quiver,” he said. “You’d better have a bunch of arrows.”
This article is reposted with permission of the The Fayetteville Observer, a media partner with WRAL News. Observer staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3525.