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Minnesota, use your sizable surplus to strengthen public safety and invest in the next generation

High-quality preschool programs can lead to positive results for kids when it comes to incarceration and involvement with crime.

early childhood education
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

I’ve dedicated three decades to law enforcement. One lesson I’ve learned during that time is that the most effective way to strengthen public safety is to stop crime before it happens.

With its significant budget surplus this year, Minnesota has a unique opportunity to address some of the root causes of crime. So it’s disappointing this week to learn that lawmakers are again at an impasse.

Our state can boost public safety by investing in high-quality early childhood care and learning (ECL) programs. Many Minnesota children, especially those from low-income families, start school behind their peers and may never catch up.

This is an urgent problem, as too many young people in Minnesota are not doing well in school. In fact, more than half (56 percent) of Minnesota eighth-graders are not proficient in math, nearly two-thirds are not proficient in reading, and 16 percent of students are not graduating high school on time.

ECL also matters from a public safety perspective, which is one reason why I care so much about these programs. Some studies have found direct links between quality preschool programs and crime reduction.

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The most recent example was a study of the Boston preschool program conducted by MIT. There, researchers found that enrollees in the program were less likely than nonenrollees to have been incarcerated in a juvenile facility during high school. This finding is consistent with other studies that have shown that high-quality preschool programs can lead to positive results for kids when it comes to incarceration and involvement with crime.

High-quality ECL programs work with parents to give children a good start in life, helping to shrink or erase educational gaps and prepare children for success at higher grade levels. These programs impact young children during a unique stage of brain development that can lay the groundwork for academic and career achievement.

Unfortunately, many parents struggle to find affordable, accessible and high-quality ECL programs. Over one-quarter of Minnesota youngsters can’t meet the overall school readiness benchmark at kindergarten entry, and children from low-income families are only half as likely to meet the benchmark as children from families with higher incomes.

Steve Soyka
Steve Soyka

Kids who arrive in kindergarten already behind and unready to learn may never recover academically. Research indicates that these kids are more likely to underperform in third-grade reading and math, more likely to be held back in school, and less likely to graduate from high school on time. These poor academic outcomes can also increase the chances of involvement in crime.

Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) and preschool programs can help close these gaps and pave a path to a brighter future for our state’s kids. CCAP provides financial assistance to parents with low incomes that allows them to access high-quality child care while they are working or attending school.

However, CCAP doesn’t serve all eligible children, and reimbursement rates for providers remain inadequate. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s publicly funded preschool programs currently reach just 25% of 4-year-olds and 10% of 3-year-olds, and funding for Early Learning Scholarships falls short of need.

More funding would strengthen CCAP and provide more families with ECL access. As a law enforcement leader, I believe that investing some of our state’s budget surplus to improve access to high-quality ECL programs would put children — and the state — on a path toward greater safety and prosperity.

For the sake of our state’s future, we can’t afford to miss out on this crucial opportunity to strengthen the next generation of Minnesotans.

Steve Soyka is sheriff of Stearns County and a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.