WALLA WALLA — With the foreboding towers of the Walla Walla State Penitentiary in the background, local law enforcement officials lined up at a news conference Thursday to announce their support for an Obama administration proposal to increase federal spending on early-childhood learning.
That proposal, first outlined in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in February, would increase federal spending on early-childhood education by $75 billion over 10 years with the goal of increasing availability of preschool care for children of low-income families.
Thursday’s news conference was held by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national group of law enforcement officials which argues that increased spending on childhood education would, in effect, pay for itself over the long term with cost savings realized by reducing school dropouts and thus reducing state and federal inmate populations.
The group supported that claim in a report called “I’m the Guy You Pay Later,” which references several studies done in the Midwest showing the efficacy of early childhood education in promoting high school graduation rates.
One report on graduates of the HighScope Perry Preschool Project, which began in Ypsilanti, Mich., in 1962, showed that by age 40, violent crime rates for its graduates dropped by 16 percent, from 48 to 32 percent when compared to a control group.
The same report, done in 2007 by the nonpartisan nonprofit Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, showed graduates of the program reported a host of other benefits, including higher incomes and less births out of wedlock.
Local law enforcement officials present at Thursday’s news conference were Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber, Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner, and Walla Walla County Prosecutor Jim Nagle, all of whom endorsed the plan.
“We know from research and from our experience that the journey that brought many inmates to the facility across the street did not happen overnight,” Bieber said. “The path to school failure is often charted in the child’s earliest years.”
Obama’s proposal, which would be funded with a nationwide 94-cent tax increase on the price of a pack of cigarettes, aims to provide prekindergarten for 4-year-olds whose families’ incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, child care for low-income families with children ages birth-to-3, and voluntary home visits for young children in at-risk families.
Washington’s take from the federal funding would be $61 million in the first year alone, much of which will likely go to the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, which provides low-income children with preschool education.
The federal money would almost double Washington’s budget for ECEAP, for which the state has $136 million budgeted out for the next two years.
Kerri Coffman, the director of ECEAP and Head Start programs at Blue Ridge Elementary school, said some of that money would have to go toward facility improvements to see the most impact.
“I know it will be a great addition to our program,” Coffman said of the increased funding, but “one concern would be space. Some additional facility dollars would have to be attached to that, but that’s something that all programs will have to look at.”
Coffman said her program has had a waiting list of 40 to 50 eligible children for the past four years, but that without facility improvements Blue Ridge would only be able to serve about 20 more students despite almost doubling its operating budget.
“Many of these kids (on the program’s waiting list) do not receive services before going to kindergarten,” Coffman said. “I’m very excited that our nation is taking a strong look at being proactive with our earliest learners.”
But, as ECEAP only serves families at or below 110 percent of the poverty level, Obama’s proposal would still fall short of universal preschool, at least in Washington state.
“I see this group of families that come in that just barely miss the cutoff for eligibility, and they’re still struggling to pay bills, and they can’t afford preschool elsewhere,” Coffman said. “Those are the families that I feel are vulnerable as well.”
As for her program’s effectiveness on graduation rates, Coffman said anecdotal evidence has been strong.
“You see some of these students that may not have had those opportunities go on to do great things,” she said. “That’s very powerful. Children, I think, are our best investment.”
Ben Wentz can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8315.