Armed with a new report claiming thousands of California toddlers linger on preschool waiting lists, state law enforcement officials have signed on to a growing campaign to make preschool programs more available for poor children.
The report, released Tuesday by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an Oakland-based preschool advocacy group, shows that 76 percent of the publicly funded preschool programs the organization surveyed reported having waiting lists for enrollment.
The group's report also relies on several previous studies to argue that children enrolled in preschool have a greater chance of success through high school and are less likely to become criminals.
Some 300 sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys and anti-crime advocates have signed on to Fight Crime's report, which calls for expanding existing public programs, such as the federally funded Head Start program.
In a media briefing this week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca called guaranteeing preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds the "calling of the 21st century," saying it would boost academic achievement, worker productivity, and public safety.
"We're building a future citizen that will take on all the responsibilities of adulthood," Baca said. "And it only makes sense that they need some help before they hit the dirt."
In all, the report shows that roughly 50,000 students were signed up on waiting lists at 2,876 public preschools. However, those schools represent less than half of the number Fight Crime contacted for the survey.
Officials with the group said that, despite a response rate of 48 percent, the study's findings were enough to show an unmet need and called on legislators to find a way to fund more preschool programs.
Brian Lee, deputy director for Fight Crime, said estimates for providing preschool to all of the state's 4-year-olds ranged from $1 billion to $2 billion.
But Lee argued that another report cited in his organization's study documented long-term cost benefits of $17 for every $1 spent on preschool programs. That 40-year study tracked 123 Michigan students, half of whom were enrolled in a preschool program for low-income students at risk of academic failure.
That study, the findings of which were released last November, claimed students who didn't participate in the preschool program were twice as likely to become career criminals and four times more likely to be arrested on drug-related charges.
"The question shouldn't be, 'How can we afford this?' " Lee said. "The question should be, 'How can we afford not to invest in preschool?' "
Fight Crime's report is the most recent push in a statewide campaign to lobby for greater access to preschool; state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell suggested last month that all young children should attend preschool.
But some critics caution against expanding public education's realm beyond kindergarten.
Darcy Olsen, president of the conservative Goldwater Institute, which published its own report Tuesday advocating for more reform at the secondary school level, said public policy should not be based on the findings of one specialized study.
"Even if the findings are valid for the (Michigan) students," Olsen said, "it takes a heroic leap to find the benefit for severely disabled students would apply to mainstream students, which 90 percent of students are."
Olsen added that research on the benefits of preschool has yielded mixed results, with several studies concluding that preschoolers' initial academic gains fade after a few years in primary school. Education reform, she argues, needs to take place in the upper-grade levels, not early childhood.
"The education establishment has got to address its own shortcomings, which are really between fourth and 12th grades," Olsen said. "And until they acknowledge that, all the preschool programs in the world aren't going to make a difference."