September 11, 2008

Editorial An Early Start To Combatting Crime

A Washington, D.C.-based anti-crime group has come up with statistics to show what we all know intuitively to be true: a high school diploma is an effective weapon against crime.

The group, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, says increasing graduation rates by 10 percentage points would prevent 3,000 murders and 175,000 aggravated assaults every year in America.

For Pennsylvania, that would mean 147 fewer murders and 5,910 fewer assaults annually, the group says.

And if graduation rates were raised 10 percent (among males nationwide) more than $10 billion could be saved annually in the U.S. - $576 million in Pennsylvania - through reducing costs associated with crime.

Those are impressive figures, and should cause a redoubling of efforts to improve graduation rates.

The statistics confirm what we would expect to happen, that a child who graduates from high school has a leg up on a child who doesn't.

Nationally, the graduation rate is 71 percent, ranging from a low of 45 percent in Nevada to a high of 83 percent in New Jersey and Iowa.

Pennsylvania's rate is 80 percent, among the highest in the nation, but still with room for improvement.

Philadelphia is among the largest cities in the nation with an abysmal graduation rate - 62 percent.

In Lancaster County, the latest available figures (2007) show a graduation rate of 91 percent, an impressive number overall, but a little deceiving. Ten school districts here have gradually improved their graduation rates over the past five years, but six have not.

And the city schools, which face challenges that their suburban counterparts do not, continue to struggle in this regard.

"Too many times, I have seen young people fail or drop out of school only to end up in police custody shortly thereafter. This cycle must be stopped here and now," says Boston District Attorney Daniel Conley, a member of Fight Crime.

One of the more effective ways to do this is through expanded pre- kindergarten programs. the group says.

"Research shows that children who receive quality early childhood education have a much better chance of finishing high school," says San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne. "By earning a diploma, they're more likely to find good jobs and contribute to our economy, instead of our prison population."

Head Start, the federally funded pre-K program, serves only half of the 3- and 4-year-olds eligible for the program nationwide, Fight Crime says.

The state of Pennsylvania funds Head Start, as well as its Pre-K Counts program. Still, three-fourths of the state's 3- and 4-year- olds aren't being reached by these taxpayer-funded early education programs.

In Lancaster County, 800 children are served by the Head Start program administered by the Community Action Program of Lancaster County. That's a lot of kids, but not all the ones who are eligible for the program.

The biggest obstacle to expanded early education programs is funding. It costs about $7,000 per year per child, according to Fight Crime.

A lot of money, to be sure. But far less than the $33,000 the state of Pennsylvania pays to house each of its approximately 50,000 inmates. (Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of all inmates do not have a high-school diploma.)

The benefits? The strong link between high-school graduation and reduced crime. Grads are less likely to be arrested and less likely to be incarcerated. And for every dollar invested in preschool programs, taxpayers save $17, according to Fight Crime.

At a time when their dollars are stretched thin, many taxpayers say they can't afford to pay for expanded early education programs, as worthwhile as those programs might be.

The reasonable question that this anti-crime group is asking is, can we afford not to?

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