Invest in preschool instead of prisons

The Idaho Board of Corrections was told recently that it needs to build a new prison and expand others at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $500 million. That’s because projections show that our inmate population will soar from 8,600 to more than 10,000 in four years.

Debbie Field, chair of the Board of Correction, said the state must build the prison. “We have to do something. That’s our only option.”

Rod Gramer

Field is right — it does appear we need this new prison because, unfortunately, our prisons are overcrowded and are expected to get even more crowded. But I disagree that we don’t have options to end, or at least mitigate, the madness of locking up more people, building more prisons, at a greater cost to taxpayers.

The best option we have is to see that the next generation of Idahoans do not become inmates by ensuring that they can read proficiently by fourth grade, successfully navigate through our K-12 schools, go on to receive a postsecondary credential or degree and become productive and contributing citizens of our great state.

As Jim Zimmerman, the former President and CEO of Macy’s, once said: “It’s better to prepare children than to repair them.”

It costs Idaho taxpayers $20,075 a year to house and feed a prisoner, according to the Board of Corrections. Yet we only spend about $7,200 per year to educate a K-12 student – ranking Idaho 49th in the amount we spend per student.

To send a student to the University of Idaho this fall will cost about $7,864 for instate students, and a total of $17,980 if you count books, housing and meals.

In other words, it costs less to send a young Idahoan to college for four years than to lock him or her up for four years. And it costs even less to send a student to one of our four community colleges where they can get the skills to qualify for a good, family-sustaining wage.

Just think about the payback Idaho receives when one of its children receives a postsecondary degree or workforce certificate rather than languishing behind bars, costing taxpayers twenty grand a year.

A college grad can expect to earn on average $55,432 a year or more depending upon the degree compared to a person with only a high school diploma who makes $33,900 a year.

It’s easy to see that the return on investment to our state’s taxpayers is much greater if we would improve our young people’s educational prospects rather than putting them behind bars.

A few years ago, Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek told legislators that Idaho could more than triple its gross state product if it raised the educational attainment of its workers to the level of Finland, one of the best educated countries in the world. If we did that, he said, education would pay for itself.

All of this leads me to the most important “option” of all — ensuring that Idaho’s 4-year-old children come into kindergarten ready to learn.

Right now, 50 percent of our 4 year olds are not ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, meaning they can’t recognize a few letters, colors or sounds. The probability that these children can read proficiently by fourth grade — when students are expected to read to learn – goes down significantly. They are also more likely to drop out of school and end up in that new prison we plan to build.

Yet Idaho is one of only six states that spends no money helping children get ready to learn. Even though it costs on average $5,000 a year to provide early education to a 4-year-old.

As a taxpayer, I’d take a $5,000 investment to get a child ready to learn and succeed in school any day over spending $20,000 a year to lock them up once they commit a crime.

Funny thing about human nature, though — we often wait until a crisis, calamity or crime occurs before we do something. Or, as Chair Field said, “We don’t have the option to do nothing. We have to do something.”

But what if we set more students up for success in school, work and life before we waste their talent and potential? Now that’s really doing something.

Written by Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education.

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