Nationally, the 20-year projections of the prison population are based on the reading achievement of third-graders. This is sad and scary. It is sad that the future of our children is essentially determined by age 8 by a skill that is so fundamental that most of us take it for granted. It is scary that our policymakers have chosen to write these children off and invest in prisons to warehouse them.
Eighty-eight percent of children who have problems reading in first grade still have problems reading in fourth grade, and 74 percent of children who have problems reading in third grade still have problems reading in ninth grade. Children from the lower socio-economic status enter school with poorer skills in the major areas of development and learning. Average achievement scores for kindergarten children in the highest socio-economic group are 60 percent higher than those in the lowest socio-economic group. Nearly one-third of children in Kansas arrive at school without the basic skills needed for success.
There is a solution. We must invest in quality early childhood programs today. The 40-year longitudinal High/Scope study of Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., found a benefit-cost ratio of $17 to $1 for investments in quality preschool programs for high-risk children. This results in an 18 percent annual rate of return. The public yield is a 16 percent rate of return in savings to the criminal justice system, crime victims and welfare payments. The children in the study gained higher educations and earned more money over their lifetimes, making them contributors to our society rather than users of the system.
I am not suggesting that we subject our 18-month-old toddlers to a volley of flashcards each morning between 9:30 and 10 a.m. The early childhood program must be developmentally appropriate. For the very young, focus on social-emotional development is the key. This means stable, secure relationships and language development. Between ages 3 and 5, emergent literacy skills can be introduced. The five key components of an early literacy program include a print-rich environment, oral language development, alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness and writing. And, of course, the need for stable, secure relationships remains, as it does throughout our lifetime.
Policy makers in Kansas have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our future generations. In this year's budget proposal, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius requested $6.7 million for Kansas school readiness initiatives, including expanding pre-kindergarten pilots, expanding Kansas Early Head Start, and increasing the availability and improving the quality of early care for infants and toddlers. Douglas County has been targeted for a pre-kindergarten pilot and Early Head Start. The $6.7 million invested in early childhood learning opportunities today will return $183.5 million in benefits to society over the next 20 years. We owe it to our children. Their futures and our society depend upon it.