Other Opinions

Mississippi needs to invest in high-quality pre-K to help cut crime

Mike Ezell
Mike Ezell File

Being the sheriff of Jackson County means having to make a lot of tough decisions. That comes with the territory. Every day, my job requires me to make decisions that I know may put officers’ lives on the line. But I do so with the understanding that their brave work will ensure our communities are safe places to work, play, worship and live.

But, when given the choice to prevent a crime before it happens, or to deal with the consequences after the fact, that decision is an easy one.

That’s also why, when it comes to investing in high-quality pre-K, I believe our state should answer with a resounding “yes.”

Making that investment is an easy call because one of the most effective ways to prevent crime is to provide children with the tools they need to lead successful lives that are free of criminal activity — and one of the best ways to deliver these tools is through high-quality pre-K.

Research tells us what law enforcement officers already know to be true: Kids who get a strong start in life are more likely to stay in school, graduate high school and lead lives free of crime. A report from the national anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids cites one study that found children who participated in a high-quality pre-K program in Chicago were almost 30 percent more likely to graduate high school by age 20. Meanwhile, kids who did not participate in the program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

In Mississippi, where nearly one-fifth of our youth do not graduate from high school on time, and where 5 percent of teens under the age of 18 have been arrested, pre-K could go a long way toward building our students’ success and our communities’ public safety. Investing in pre-K on the front end could also save us millions through reduced costs associated with incarceration and the justice system. As it stands, Mississippi spends more than $495 million on state and local corrections every year.

Luckily, our state already has a model for success. Mississippi’s 14 Early Learning Collaboratives have been ranked in the top 10 pre-K programs in the country by the National Institute for Early Education Research. A study done by Mississippi State University found that children who attended Mississippi’s Title I-funded preschools were 1.5 times more likely to be reading proficiently in third grade.

I take great pride in the fact that our state has produced one of the most effective pre-K programs in the country. But these great programs aren’t reaching enough kids. Right now, just 4 percent of our state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in these Early Learning Collaboratives.

What’s more, research has found that preschoolers nationwide are three times more likely to be expelled or suspended than students in grades K-12. This matters in Mississippi, where in-school suspension rates for K-12 students are twice the national average, and even higher for black students.

If we really want to help at-risk kids succeed in school, get on the right track and live crime-free lives, then we need to make sure more than 4 percent of Mississippi’s children get access to, and remain in, high-quality pre-K.

Doing that will help ensure that Jackson County — and Mississippi — is a safer place.