Wednesday, February 15, 2006 | Last year, economists at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization providing analysis of issues facing the public and private sectors, released a study showing the economic benefits to our state if most children attended a quality preschool. Recently, more data was released by them that broke down the economic, public safety and educational benefits on a county-by-county basis.

The recent data from RAND shows that San Diego would benefit from affordable, accessible preschools more than any other county in California, after Los Angeles. Researchers say more preschool would significantly improve educational outcomes and reduce juvenile crime.

The study finds that if all of San Diego County’s 44,000 four-year-olds were given the chance to enroll in a quality preschool, San Diego would see the following benefits that would be repeated for each annual group of students:

1,005 fewer children ever held back a grade

4,569 fewer child years in special education

2,154 fewer criminal charges filed against juveniles, including 411 fewer charges for violent crimes

To quote San Diego’s Chief of Police William Lansdowne, “The data shows that investing in a high-quality preschool is an excellent crime prevention tool for San Diego. We have a choice – spend now on proven interventions like a high-quality preschool or pay a greater price down the line in more juvenile charges and fewer graduations.”

The earlier report by RAND showed that quality preschools return $2.62 to California society for every dollar invested. Benefits begin to exceed the costs by the time each class of four-year-olds turn 14.

RAND found that each class year of children would generate $2.7 billion to California society over their lifetime. Each class year in the state included approximately 550,000 children.

Those of us working at the county level found that this data supported the data we had from many other states. Dissenters can no longer say, “Well, that may be true for Michigan or Georgia, but how do you know this is accurate for California?”

There are some universal truths, and this is one of them.

In San Diego we have found it necessary to move a bit slower than they have in some other counties, but we are making progress. Previously, in a piece published in Voice of San Diego on May 12, 2005, I wrote about the community collaboration that began in November 2003, when the San Diego County Child Care and Development Planning Council brought stakeholders together to develop a Master Plan for implementing Preschool For All in our county.

Many meetings with interested citizens across the county were held to develop the final Master Plan. A draft of the Preschool For All Master Plan can be viewed at the San Diego County Office of Education’s Web site.

This Master Plan does not depend upon the state ballot initiative, which just received a ballot number – Proposition 82, on Feb. 1. However, if the proposition passes in the primary election on June 6, it would definitely speed the implementation process.

Proposition 82, the Preschool For All initiative, would impose a tax increase on annual incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $800,000 for couples. It was crafted to give children from traditionally disadvantaged homes the opportunity to enter kindergarten on a more equal footing with children who have had the advantage of quality preschool preparation, either in a school or a home.

Priorities for Preschool For All implementation in San Diego were determined based on a comprehensive needs assessment and California First 5 criteria, since it was hoped that a grant from the First 5 Commission would enable this project to get off the ground.

This past November, First 5 San Diego County recommended $30 million for a Preschool For All Demonstration project. On December 5, the commission approved the Master Plan with the option to implement the demonstration project in six school districts where pockets of preschool need were found in areas with very low state testing scores.

At present, we have started to work with First 5 on submitting a state demonstration grant application for one school that will serve close to 1,000 four-year-olds. The application is due mid-February.

In order to meet the criteria, any funded preschool would need to commit to a fully qualified staff, promise continued staff development, engage families as partners, work with family care networks or family resource centers, as well as incorporate wrap-around services.

If approved, this would be just one small step. We recognize that individual communities such as San Diego Unified are taking steps in this direction at the same time. It does seem to take a lot of time and effort to accomplish something that has been shown to be such an obvious need with such an obvious benefit. Spending now for a larger future benefit appears to be very difficult for many, but certainly not all communities in the United States.

Not only will preschools help prepare kindergarten children who have language, conceptual, motor and social skills literally several years behind the other children, but it will also improve parenting skills.

It takes both good parenting and a highly trained staff to help these children catch up so they do not fall further behind as they move through the grades. We all know the consequences of this, some of which are now associated with the high school exit exam.

Everyone would benefit if we invested in Preschool For All, or voluntary universal quality preschool. The data, most prominently reported in the 40-year-long Perry study in Michigan and in the RAND study in our own state, shows that a specific economic investment in this one area would yield a better-educated, more successful workforce.

This would prepare our children to be economically self-sufficient, as well as position us to compete better in the global economy. It just makes sense to look out for our own self-interest.

Sue Braun is a member of the San Diego County Preschool For All Committee, and previously served as a member of San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education for three terms, from 1990 to 2002.

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