Montana Sheriff Pushes Pre-K Message


Throughout his 36 years in law enforcement, people have repeatedly asked Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton how society can reduce crime. Dutton’s answer is always the same: improve education.

Last week, Dutton gave a concerted speech for early childhood education during a virtual panel organized by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit organization of law enforcement officers from all over the country that advocates bipartisan strategies to reduce crime.

The event coincided with the organization’s release of a new report on the benefits of expanded pre-kindergarten programming nationwide, including strong correlations between preschool participation and lower participation rates. criminal later in life. Dutton seized the moment to share his Montana-based insights, saying he’s seen children turn to delinquent behavior in the absence of quality educational opportunities and continue to engage in that pattern throughout. of their adult life. Advocating for earlier and better opportunities for children isn’t just good politics, he said, “it’s good old-fashioned policing.”

“It doesn’t tell them what to believe or how to think, but it helps them fit into a society where they can follow the rules,” Dutton said. “I mean, if they want to color outside the lines, they’ll do it on paper, not necessarily outside of society.”

While private preschools and a network of 20 Head Start programs provide some children in Montana with access to early childhood education, the state remains one of six states without a widely available pre-K option and funded by the state. Helena lawmakers have squabbled over the issue for years, with Democrats touting the benefits of pre-kindergarten for childhood development and Republicans expressing concerns about the cost to the state and potential impacts on private preschool and daycare providers.

Montana provided preschool funding to 1,300 students in 2018-19 under a federally-backed pilot program, but the Republican-controlled legislature resisted Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s demand for $30 million. dollars to continue the program in 2019. The most recent compromise attempt, which would have allowed local school districts to establish and fund their own free preschool programs for children ages 3 to 5, failed in the Senate during of a party vote in the 2021 session, with Republicans opposing the bill.

“We have a thriving private preschool business in Montana that we need to support,” Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said in opposing the proposal in the Senate last April. “The cost is huge. If we go to public preschool, we have to use the Board of Public Ed curriculum, and certifying teachers with the right grades to be able to teach that adds a significant cost to the situation.

Dutton’s advocacy for early childhood education predates recent political skirmishes. He has been a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids for 13 years, stressing to lawmakers, fellow law enforcement officials and anyone who will listen that it’s not just about improving test scores. . It can also reduce crime, he said.

In an interview with Montana Free Press this week, Dutton said education is inextricably linked to a child’s academic, social and career future. Providing young children with a stable and reassuring educational environment in their early years can help “stifle nascent crime”.

“When I was younger I dealt with children who entered the juvenile system, I dealt with them as adults, and now I dealt with them as grandparents. . And they still have a life of crime,” Dutton said. “I’ve also dealt with young people, I would say children, who raise their hands and get involved in the education system and are able to change their lives. .”

That experience is what led Dutton on last week’s panel to advocate directly for the passage of universal pre-K legislation in Congress.

President Joe Biden’s $2.1 trillion Build Back Better plan proposed spending $390 billion to implement universal pre-K, but that bill has stalled, failing to gain support from the public. Republicans and two key Democrats in the US Senate.

Studies of the long-term academic and behavioral effects of preschool programs have yielded mixed results over the past few decades. Given the diversity of early childhood education opportunities from state to state and city to city, the researchers gleaned what information they can glean from a handful of studies. Studies in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Oklahoma have focused primarily on specific low-income or minority student populations in well-funded, high-quality preschool programs. A recently published study by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that children enrolled in a voluntary, state-funded preschool program in Tennessee from 2009 to 2011 suffered worse academic and behavioral outcomes as they aged, setting off a storm debate in education circles about the importance of program quality and adequate funding. But the broad consensus in the existing academic literature is that children enrolled in preschool show better academic performance later in school and even a lower propensity for delinquent behavior.

“The benefits of quality early childhood education go far beyond academic achievement and school readiness,” said Caitlin Jensen, executive director of nonprofit Zero to Five. Montana, via email to MTFP. “When children receive the care and education they need during their most formative years, we see fewer children with behavioral problems, reduced costs in the health and criminal justice system, more children who do well in school, graduate from high school, go on to college, and even earn more.

A December 2019 report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan, quasi-governmental research think tank, concluded that early childhood education has the potential to lead to higher earnings in the labor market later in life. life, and said the financial benefits of pre-K were 78% likely to exceed the costs of such programs.

Last week’s report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids cited the WSIPP’s finding that universal pre-K resulted in an after-cost benefit of $15,000 per student. Based on this figure, the group calculated Montana’s return on investment to provide expanded preschool to 16,000 Montana students at $240 million over the lifetime of those students. Factors built into this per-student benefit include rising wage incomes in adulthood and falling social costs such as special education.

A budget memo prepared for Montana’s latest legislative push last year estimated the pre-K expansion would cost the state $22.4 million over the next two years. The memo also estimated the total number of eligible 4-year-olds in the state at 11,940.

Dutton, who is also president of the Western States Sheriffs Association, knows the financial arguments raised by those who criticize the investment in state-funded universal pre-kindergarten. He said he recognizes the need for solutions to short-term challenges, particularly in the area of ​​law enforcement. The Lewis and Clark County Jail currently holds 106 people, below the facility’s maximum occupancy. Dutton’s office is monitoring about 300 more people through various diversion programs. Dutton said any expansion in early childhood education would not reduce those numbers for more than a decade. However, some investments should be made with an eye to the future, not immediate gains, he said.

“Someone has to start somewhere,” Dutton said. “Somebody has to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Today we start, and then we’ll see the benefits in 15 years.

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