Funneling more money into early childhood education now would give a big boost to crime prevention in future decades, because children who have a solid educational start do better in school academically, have fewer behavioral problems, and are better prepared for college and careers.
“I can tell you it can be a very scary and challenging scenario. But I had great teachers around me who cared, who paid attention to me, who nurtured me and helped me to succeed.” — Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama
That was the message from local law enforcement and early education officials Wednesday at a downtown Fresno childcare center.
Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama said he’s a firm believer in the importance of early childhood education based on his own experience as a 5-year-old in El Paso, Texas, who spoke only Spanish initially after his family moved there from Chihuahua, Mexico.
“I can tell you it can be a very scary and challenging scenario,” he said. “But I had great teachers around me who cared, who paid attention to me, who nurtured me and helped me to succeed.”
Balderrama credits the El Paso Head Start program with giving him the boost that he needed.
But today thousands of Fresno County children lack access to high-quality early childhood education programs, in part because of staffing shortages.
Staffing Shortages Are Widespread
Even the Lighthouse, a demonstration site child care center that’s a joint project of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools and First Five Fresno County, doesn’t have enough staff on hand now to be fully enrolled with 96 preschoolers. Right now, the enrollment is about 50 kids, said Dr. Matilda Soria, the office’s senior director of early care and education.
According to a report produced by the nonprofit Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, policymakers need to realize that investing money in child care and early education pays off in multiple ways. Children acquire the academic and social-emotional skills that help them be more successful in their K-12 schooling, improving their chances of graduating from high school and entering college.
A better-educated workforce is good for the community’s economy, as well as for the nation’s national security, the report said. Right now 71% of California’s youth are ineligible to serve in the military because of academic deficits, health problems, or a history of substance use or crime, according to the report.
A lack of education is a common denominator among prison inmates, Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni said.
“We know six in 10 inmates in state prisons nationwide do not have a high school diploma,” he said. “Early care and education programs are critical to bolstering public safety in California and elsewhere. Jails and prisons across America are full of people serving time for serious and costly crimes, some of them having started on the wrong path at a very young age.”
In Fresno County, there are only enough slots for 23% of the children eligible for subsidized child care, and there are enough slots only for 15% of the infants and toddlers in need of childcare, Fresno County Chief Probation Officer Kirk Haynes said.
Boost Funding for Early Childhood Ed
The report, “Early Childhood Educators Set California Kids on the Path to Success,” says the solution to the staffing shortage for high-quality early education and childcare is to provide more money for compensation, education, and professional development for workers.
Where would the money come from? Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Michele Copher said Wednesday’s news conference was intended to put a spotlight on and draw the attention of policymakers to the needs of early childhood education.
“We can say we’d love for the state of California to provide it, and we will work to have legislative champions for children in the earliest stages of life ongoing,” she said. “And that said, we also recognize that we’re going into interesting years with the state budget. So we’ll just have to see.”
Balderrama said he wishes he had resources similar to the San Diego Police Department, which opened its own childcare center for employees’ children. Police officers’ shifts often do not correspond to preschool center hours, and Fresno police officers, like officers around the nation, have struggled with finding high-quality childcare and preschools for their kids.
He said he’s received information from San Diego’s police chief about what it took to get the childcare center up and running.
Even though Fresno is a big city, it doesn’t have San Diego’s resources, and a childcare center for the Fresno Police Department would be a “heavy lift,” Balderrama said. “It is financially restrictive, but it’s something that I would love to do here in Fresno.”