Does high-quality early education reduce interactions with the juvenile justice system?

We investigated this reader-submitted question to find out.

Micah SIttig / flickr
MJ Slaby

Corrected 5 p.m. Sept. 4

As the mother of two young children, Lissa Geiger Shulman thinks a lot about early childhood education and equity.

Geiger Shulman — director of public policy for Trying Together, an organization supporting high-quality childcare and education by working with families and professionals in Pittsburgh — said her what her own children have access to at school and the white privilege they have when interacting with police made her wonder:

Does high-quality early childhood education/pre-k reduce interactions between youth and the juvenile justice system?

While there’s evidence of a connection between high-quality early education and reduced interactions between youth and juvenile justice system, some experts warned against saying it’s foolproof or irreversible.

Geiger Shulman sent her question to The Incline in our callout for reader inquiries about policing in Western Pa. While the question falls under her expertise, she said there’s a lot of discussion about issues in the justice system, and she wants to see more discussion on broad prevention and outside influences that might make an impact.

The research says…

Multiple experts first pointed to the Perry Preschool Project. This research by HighScope Educational Research Foundation (a nonprofit that does research, development, training and public outreach) spanned nearly 40 years of 123 children’s lives in Ypsilanti, Mich. In the 1960s, 3- and 4-year-old children — all low-income and at risk of failing in school — were put into two groups. One went to a high-quality preschool program, and the other didn’t attend preschool. Data collected later showed that the group that went to preschool had fewer arrests and fewer juvenile court petitions at age 19, and that same group had fewer arrests as adults by age 27. Later, researchers interviewed 97 percent of the participants at age 40 and found that those who went to preschool committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have a high school diploma, a job, and higher earnings.

While Perry Preschool is well-known, it’s not the only research that points to a link between high-quality early education and reduced interactions with the juvenile justice system.

A March 2018 study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids (a national organization of law enforcement, prosecutors and violence survivors focused on public safety) said pre-k is “key” to reducing prison costs and increasing school success in Pennsylvania and said the state could get more than $150 million in societal benefits by increasing access to high-quality pre-k programs.

But other studies aren’t as adamant about the connection.

A 2018 Vanderbilt University study about state pre-K programs in Tennessee cautioned against relying too much on state pre-K programs. “It is apparent that the phrase ‘high-quality pre-k’ does not convey enough about what the critical elements of a program should be,” the researchers wrote. In this research, children in state-funded pre-K did better than a control group that did not attend pre-K at the end of the pre-K program. But in kindergarten, the control group caught up and even surpassed the others and later had lower rates of school rule violations.

A Stanford University researcher echoed that finding in a 2018 report and said while state-funded pre-K is often seen as a way to narrow achievement gaps, it only works if the pre-K for low-income, minority children is the same quality as pre-K for higher income, white children.

The evidence is unclear, Francis Pearman, assistant professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, told The Incline. The difference largely comes from research design, he said, adding that there are multiple observational studies that finds a link between high-quality early childhood education and reduced interactions with juvenile justice system. But those studies often compare children enrolled in pre-K and children who aren’t. While factors like socioeconomic status are usually accounted for, other factors that are difficult to measure like family involvement in education, usually are not. When it comes to experimental evidence, like Perry Preschool, factors like cost need to be considered, Pearman said. A lot of people are looking for answers, he said, adding the solution to this issue is more complex.

“It makes me pause when high-quality early childhood education is viewed as a potential silver bullet for bigger problems,” Pearman said.

The science of early care

Geiger Shulman told The Incline that she also wondered about the impact of childcare on children who are younger than 3 or 4. How does that set them up for later life?

There is so much brain development in the first years of life as connections between brain cells are formed, said Rae Ann Hirsh, a professor and the program director for Early Childhood Education at Carlow University.

While the brain is developing, it’s trying to determine which aspects it will and won’t use, said Dr. Beatriz Luna, UPMC’s Staunton Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics. For example, the brain of a child exposed to stress will focus on developing reactions to stress. While there’s always plasticity left over, it’s highly debated if other skills can be developed later in life, Luna said. And there’s no one age that scientists can say the brain is done forming. But it is safe to say that the people children spend a lot of time with will have an impact, she said.

Those early relationships with parents and caregivers are critical, Hirsh stressed, adding that in some cases, childcare can start at 6-weeks-old, meaning from then on, a child is spending the bulk of the day with a caregiver that’s not their parent. That person is going to be responsible for helping the child form relationships, so “from the very beginning, it’s important that we get it right,” Hirsh said.

Paying for Pre-K

In order to reap the benefits of the positive connections of high-quality early education and reduced interactions with juvenile justice, Bruce Clash, Pa. state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, is focused on increasing state funding.

“Pre-K is among the strongest investments we can make,” he said, adding that it’s about paying for pre-k now — or later for prisons.

He knows the pool of funds is limited, and while the benefits of pre-K are becoming part of the national conversation, Clash said there are still some lawmakers who don’t see it as important or are of the mentality that it’s not needed because they didn’t go to pre-K.

Gov. Tom Wolf initially called for an additional $40 million to support high-quality pre-k programs in the 2018-2019 Pennsylvania budget that kicked in July 1. But in June, state lawmakers passed an increase of $25 million for a total of $251 million for early-childhood education funding, the Associated Press reported. In Pittsburgh, city leaders continue to push for universal pre-K, but have yet to set a timeline, 90.5 WESA reported.

At Trying Together, Geiger Shulman said they’re working to find ways to to address issues of equity and how to raise the quality by working with the staff.

At Carlow, researchers are using grant funds to figure out more about how to raise the quality of experts in early childhood education. One way, Hirsh said is to increase wages.

Pre-school can often be dismissed as not important and that early education is something that is a parent’s responsibility, she said. But there’s so much more going on behind the scenes in terms of planning and knowledge of child development, she said.

“We really need to value the people who do this work,” Hirsh said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated factors typically considered in observational studies.