SPOKANE, Wash. - Washington spends more than $800 million a year on corrections, and advocates for children believe there's a way to reduce that number - by funding early learning programs.
On Thursday, the Spokane police chief, sheriff and prosecuting attorney agreed. They cite a Michigan study that found at-risk children were five times more likely to be in the criminal justice system in their 20s if they had not been in a high-quality preschool.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he was one of those kids, and a Head Start
program got him off to a better start in life.
"The money that we're spending to give them those early childhood experiences - to light that fire of intense interest in learning - is what's going to provide for their future. And that future can be a bright future; or that future can be sitting in a jail cell. Our choice, as a society."
Both the House and Senate budgets trim early learning programs, but they go about it differently. The House cuts or ends some individual programs, while the Senate proposes paying less per child for ECEAP, the state's preschool program for low-income families, and asking parents for a copayment. Gary Burris, a senior policy associate with the Economic Opportunity Institute
, says any option comes with problems.
"The Legislature 'gets it,' but there's such a revenue shortfall right now that early learning is not being spared. Some would say that maybe it's not being cut quite as badly as other programs - but there still are some very significant cuts proposed, and it could really be devastating for families."
Burris says even small fee hikes will price some parents out of the childcare system, and could cause providers to lay off staff or close their doors.
Proponents of cutting early learning believe it's something parents should be taking care of. Sheriff Knezovich says many who work in law enforcement see it differently.
"When I hear talking heads say, 'It's the parents' responsibility' - well, you know, they're right. The problem is, in today's world, many of these kids don't have parents - or if they do have parents, that was a purely biological function. They don't have the same upbringing, the same mentoring, that kids did a generation ago."
Knezovich says one person's criminal career can cost taxpayers $2.5 million in the corrections system.
The newly-released Senate budget has not yet been approved. When it is, a conference committee will be appointed with members of both Senate and House, to negotiate budget differences.