My Turn: Early childhood education helps communities prosper

It’s no secret that there is now a surge of opiate use here in the Granite State, and with that, a growing presence of criminal activity, including violent crimes.

As sheriff of Merrimack County, I know that New Hampshire law enforcement agencies are doing everything possible to rein in this troubling new threat. But we are well aware that we need longer-term solutions, too. That’s why we are urging public officials at the state and federal levels to support policies that will give every American child access to high-quality early education.

It’s a message I have brought – and will continue to bring – personally to our congressional delegation in Washington, to state government leaders and even to the presidential candidates who appear on WMUR’s “Conversation with the Candidate,” a series sponsored by Save the Children Action Network, which advocates for expanding early childhood education here in New Hampshire and across the nation.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush just did the latest taping, on Thursday in Manchester, and I told him what I have told the other candidates: There is a tower of definitive evidence showing that early learning programs are critical to kids’ success in school and life. If we invest today in setting a strong intellectual, cognitive and emotional foundation for children before they reach age 5, we can significantly raise the odds they will stay in and perform well in school, avoid teenage pregnancy, keep away from drug-related and violent crimes and, more generally, contribute to making our communities more livable and prosperous.

That’s because by age 5, a child’s brain is already 90 percent developed. So if children don’t get the stimulation and exposure to the essential building blocks of learning by that age, chances are they will fall behind as they move on in school.

When that happens, many never catch up. We know that children living in poverty who don’t participate in high-quality early education programs are much more likely to be placed in special education or drop out of school and not attend college. They are 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime and 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent.

Stark as those realities are, two out of every five American children still are not in preschool. According to a report released last week by the National Institute for Early Education Research, New Hampshire remains one of only nine states without a state-funded preschool program.

Those of us in law enforcement will always be seeking new and more effective crime fighting approaches and more sophisticated tools and technologies to help us stay ahead of crime. But we know that even innovative, well-equipped police forces can only go so far to tame the problem. Ultimately, police are battling a symptom of a fundamental challenge, not its source. By supporting strong early childhood education today, we will be in a much better position to secure our communities in the future.

It’s not surprising that a growing and broad range of leaders and organizations – from across the political spectrum and within the business community, which hungers for a well-prepared workforce – are also convinced of early childhood education’s powerful promise. Save the Children Action Network is partnering with Early Learning New Hampshire to advocate for increased access to early learning programs in our state.

That’s why many of my law enforcement colleagues and I are going out of our way to urge leaders in public office and in the private sector to seize the opportunity of quality early education programs for all our children. To fight crime, we must invest in kids.

(Scott Hilliard is Merrimack County sheriff.)