It is time for the region, state and nation to have a serious debate about prioritizing spending with an eye on early education and preschool family support. That’s the focus of a new campaign launched locally Thursday at the Wilkes-Barre Head Start center.
The campaign name, “Childhood Begins at Home,” may sound redundant. Where else would it begin? But the point is valid. The opportunities, enrichment and experiences children get in their first years at home have a lifetime impact, and there is mounting evidence that we can craft effective programs to help in those formative years — programs that pay big dividends later in life.
To be sure, speakers at the launch overused the the phrase “evidence-based.” The question is always the same: Who decides what evidence matters?
But in this case, even if you doubt the “evidence-based” success of early education and home support programs, common sense should tell you it can work.
That single mother struggling to feed children while holding down a low paying job often has much less time to spend interacting with and reading to the kids, much less the money to buy all the books, educational toys and opportunities a better-off couple provides. The odds are high that, without help, children of the first mother will enter kindergarten well behind the others developmentally.
Children trapped through no fault of their own in poverty or with drug-abusing parents? Getting a nurse or other agency help into that house regularly can prevent them from falling into the same pattern, can give the parents the push they need to clean up their act, and can break the poverty cycle. Wealthier parents have options poor parents lack in reversing bad decisions.
These are the reasons spending money on the preschool child can save big dollars later. Making sure a child enters kindergarten as ready as their peers means they won’t feel inadequate and give up before they get going. The right help early greatly increases the odds the child won’t turn to drugs later, won’t end up in the criminal justice system, won’t need special education services, won’t end up on welfare or using government insurance safety nets.
Yes, there is the question of adult responsibility, but the goal of these programs is to give the adults the options they don’t see, the support they didn’t know is available, and the advice on how to leverage what they do have. If the program is truly “evidence based,” the evidence must prove the program gives, as state Sen. Lisa Baker said, “a hand up.”
The problem has become one of shifting priorities. We need to put more money into these programs so we spend less on the bigger problems that develop when these disadvantaged children become unproductive, even counterproductive adults. Yes, $14,000 a year for a child in Early Head Start in Wilkes-Barre may sound like a lot, but you can get three kids into the program with the $42,000 average annual cost per inmate in Pennsylvania prisons.
How do we start spending the money before we see the savings? That’s the debate this campaign hopes to spur.