High-quality pre-k investments build human potential, reduce prison spending

For 25 years, I have taught men and women incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s state prisons. They come to my class if they don’t have a GED or high school diploma, but frankly, many never even came close.

Some can barely read or do simple addition.

Most don’t know their times tables.

I ask each one why they left school. Sometimes, they had to work to support their families, but many others simply didn’t care. They were so far behind academically that they couldn’t catch up. Many came from homes filled with neglect, drugs, and violence. One woman was making toasted cheese sandwiches for herself at 3 years old because her mother wasn’t feeding her.

It’s sad to think of what my students could have been if someone had cared enough to help them learn and shown them how to behave.

One way to make sure that kids today don’t suffer their fate is by investing in high-quality pre-k.

I see firsthand the things shown by research regarding early child development. My students came from homes where parents didn’t read to them or use a lot of words, and studies show that children in professional families have heard 45 million words by the time they’re 3 years old, compared to 13 million for kids of parents receiving public assistance.

Those low-income kids have limited vocabularies, and when they get to school, they’re behind on things like knowing the alphabet and counting to 10.

Since they start school behind, many just can’t catch up.

Before long, they can’t read well enough to keep up with lessons, and suddenly, they’re singled out and made fun of, until it all snowballs to that day when they drop out.

It’s not just their academics that suffer.

They didn’t learn social skills, like respecting authority and getting along with others.

A survey of all incoming male inmates in early 2018 found that those who were suspended in elementary school had higher school dropout rates and were more likely to have been placed in a residential juvenile justice program compared to inmates who had not been suspended.

High-quality pre-k programs also teach the behavior skills and impulse control essential to following directions and learning to manage life’s frustrations.

The difference maker in early childhood and beyond is getting engaged with someone to guide them. Learning and social skills have to start early because by the time we get them in prison, it’s obviously too late.

They don’t believe in themselves. Their self-esteem is horrible, and that starts young.

For children whose parents are absent or neglectful, high-quality pre-k programs can provide that trusted adult who is trained in talking and reading to them in ways that help build their developing brains.

For parents who simply don’t know about child development, pre-k is a partner teaching the importance of appropriately engaging in their child’s education.

Research shows that high-quality pre-k delivers benefits that help children thrive. Children from these programs are more likely to enter school ready to learn, not need or need less special education, not be held back a grade, and graduate from high school. They are also less likely to be arrested or incarcerated.

The inmates I teach are a tiny fraction of the 47,000 incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons.

We spend $43,000 a year on each one.

To me, it makes much more sense to spend much less — about $8,500 — on high-quality pre-k that helps keep children away from the criminal justice system.

The 2018-19 state budget being considered now proposes an additional $40 million investment in high-quality, publicly funded pre-k, which would serve an additional 4,400 children.

As a new report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Pennsylvania shows, this investment would save $150 million over the lifetimes of all these kids.

When my students are in my class, for an hour and a half I like to help them forget they’re in jail. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they weren’t here at all?

Starting young with quality prekindergarten could have made all the difference.

For today’s young children, it’s not too late. It’s time to invest so they grow up believing in themselves.

Kriner has served with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections since 1993. She has been a ABE/GED Instructor at the State Correction Institution in Muncy since 2015.