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State lawmakers should expand access to early childhood education

As the Multnomah County sheriff, I make no apologies for arresting people who threaten public safety.

But I also know from research and from my personal experience that we can’t simply prosecute and incarcerate our way out of crime problems. The best way to create safer communities is to prevent more people from turning to crime in the first place.

Education must be the focal point of that strategy. Nationwide, seven out of 10 offenders in state prisons don’t have a high school diploma. That includes 48 percent of the more than 16,000 incarcerated in Oregon’s prisons and jails who do not have diplomas, which cost our taxpayers $769 million each year.

Getting more children into quality preschool programs will change this trend. The proof is found in numerous reports by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of more than 5,000 law enforcement leaders.

Its recent report, “I’m the Guy You Pay Later” (, highlighted research that compared outcomes for children who did and did not participate in the Chicago Child Parent Centers program, which served more than 100,000 children, most from low-income families.

The research, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed these children for decades into their adult lives and found that nonparticipants were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18. Participants were 40 percent less likely to be placed in special education and 29 percent more likely to have graduated from high school by age 18.

Those who did not participate in a similar program in Michigan were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers by the age of 27, while participants were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

These outcomes make perfect sense when you look at studies on state preschool programs in New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina and others. The studies showed a range of benefits for participating kids, including a lower need for special education, fewer developmental delays and significant gains in mathematics and literacy that lasted well into the elementary school years.

With this in mind, I offer some bad news and good news. The bad news is that Oregon’s state prekindergarten program serves only 10 percent of our 4-year-olds. Those who don’t participate are missing out on a program that ranks very high on the National Institute for Early Education Research quality standards checklist, with small classes and teachers with specialized early childhood training, among other qualities.

The good news is that we have a historic opportunity to expand access to the program. Bipartisan legislation known as the Strong Start for America’s Children Act would give Oregon and other states nationwide billions of dollars to create, strengthen and expand quality preschool programs. States would be in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating their programs and ensuring they meet quality standards that have a proven impact on children’s long-term success.

This legislation will be working its way through Congress and undoubtedly will focus on the return on investment for preschool programs. That means even more good news for this legislation.

The “I’m the Guy You Pay Later” report estimates that full implementation of the state federal proposal ultimately will lead to a reduction of 1,400 people who are incarcerated in Oregon each year and save taxpayers as much as $77 million each year due to reduced costs for crime and incarceration.

Equally important: A well-respected, independent analysis of more than 20 different studies of preschool programs showed they can return, on average, a “profit” to society of $15,000 for every child served, based on lower crime, welfare, special education and other taxpayer-funded costs.

The legislation also comes at a prime time for quality preschool support among lawmakers. In 2013 alone, governors of 25 states proposed or signed into law significant expansions of state preschool programs. Law enforcement leaders nationwide support their leadership, as evidenced by a recent Mason Dixon poll showing eight out of 10 want Congress to make the state-federal preschool partnership a reality.

Simply put, we are at a fork in the road. We can continue with the status quo, which is leading too many people to failure in school and involvement in crime, at a huge cost to Oregon taxpayers. Or, we can take a different course that acts on the power of preschool to lead more kids to success in school, high school graduation and savings to taxpayers.

I urge our elected leaders to take the right path for the sake of kids today and crime reduction in the coming years.

Daniel Staton has served as Multnomah County sheriff since January 2010. He has been with the sheriff’s office since 1989.

He and Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill and Portland Police Chief Mike Reese are among those promoting early children education as a way to reduce future crime.

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