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As a proud product of Anna-Jonesboro public schools, I know a good education can prepare students for successful adulthood. And as the Union County State’s Attorney for the last decade, I have seen the evidence that early learning — from the first years of a child’s life — can help keep kids from getting entangled in criminal activity.

Studies have shown that children who experience the benefits of preschool are better prepared for school, less likely to be placed in special education classes or to drop out, and significantly less likely to be arrested either as children or adults.

The reality in Illinois, however, is that too many kids enter kindergarten less than prepared for success. Last year, the state’s Kindergarten Individual Development Survey asked teachers to assess children at the beginning of the school year, looking at math, language and literacy, and social-emotional development. Forty-two percent of incoming students had not reached readiness in any of these three areas.

Unfortunately, families often lack access to the quality early childhood programs that would help remedy this deficiency. There are more than 112,000 Illinois children — 3 and 4 years old — who are not enrolled in public preschool, and whose families cannot afford to pay for quality preschool on their own. That’s a lot of youngsters, including thousands here in Southern Illinois, not getting a proper start in life. And it poses serious implications for their own well-being and for public safety in the years to come.

That is why I and more than 160 of my Illinois law enforcement colleagues have written to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state legislators, urging them to substantially increase their commitment to early education and to rebuild our child care assistance program. An upcoming report from the bipartisan group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids — of which I serve as state co-chair — shows that the return on investment for quality preschool is nearly $5 for every dollar spent. That is because of the increased earning potential of participants and reduced outlays for crime, health care, and other societal costs.

This commitment must go beyond a necessary boost to the early childhood education budget. The quality of services for young children depends in large part on the existence of ample facilities in which to house them. With rumblings in Springfield about a fresh capital program to bolster Illinois’ crumbling infrastructure, law enforcement leaders are calling for early childhood facilities to be included.

The need is clear. The last time Illinois had a major infrastructure spending program, in 2009, there were nearly $500 million in requests for early childhood facilities statewide, but only $45 million in available funding.

Leaving young children behind in Illinois, because of a lack of space or lack of funding, is a shortsighted choice that comes with a hefty cost down the road. Already Illinois spends over a billion dollars a year on prisons, with tens of millions more spent on criminal justice in our communities. Helping out families with quality early childhood services is far more cost-effective than simply building and staffing more prisons. If we can get our kids ready for kindergarten, then we are readying our state for a brighter future.

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Tyler Edmonds is the Union County State’s Attorney.

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