Observer-Reporter: Editorial: Pay now on Pre-K and Head Start, save money later

In the United States, we do a smash-up job of putting people behind bars – we have the highest incarceration rate on the planet, with 22 percent of the world’s prisoners and only 4 percent of its population – but we do only a fair-to-middling job in providing education that might have kept some of those inmates out of the prison system in the first place.

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf teamed up with several prosecutors and Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel to push a plan that would provide a significant boost to funding for Head Start and pre-kindergarten programs in the commonwealth, which, they argue, would increase the odds children brought into those programs will grow up to be productive, educated citizens and lower the odds they will waste their potential and while away much of their adulthood behind bars.

Their argument is persuasive. According to Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, which is supporting the proposal, every dollar spent on pre-kindergarten and Head Start returns $1.79 in the short term, and $17 over the long haul. And a study from University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty found enrolling youngsters in pre-kindergarten or Head Start programs increases the chances they will complete high school 14 or 15 years later and not end up being ushered through the criminal justice system.

Boosters for Head Start and Pre-K programs said the programs not only provide a leg up for students in learning that will come in handy once they reach kindergarten, but students who take part also start internalizing lessons in getting along with others, understanding and respecting those who are in authority and, perhaps most importantly, controlling impulsive behavior that could earn them a punishment well beyond a few minutes in time-out once they’re older.

As Wolf said: “There is no better way to invest in the lives of our fellow citizens than in early childhood education. We can see the reverse when we don’t invest. … Let’s reduce the number of people who look at crime as a real option; who think that crime actually does pay.”

Wolf is asking the state’s share of Head Start funding be increased by $20 million, which would enroll about 2,400 additional children, and the amount the state contributes to the Pre-K Counts program be more than doubled, from $97 million to $197 million, which would allow over 11,000 more children to sign up.