Even before dreaming of a post-conflict scenario, Colombia must find ways to provide access to quality, affordable early childhood education.
1. Investment in early childhood education is an economic driver.
Children who have access to early childhood education — preschools, after-school and enrichment programs — are significantly less likely to wind up in the courts and in the jails, saving taxpayers a fortune.
A report, released by California-based Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, estimates that education before kindergarten can save communities in the U.S. about US $22,000 for each student served from a combination of reduced criminal justice, health care costs and increased lifetime earnings.
The Fight Crime: Invest in Kids report cited a comprehensive study that concluded children in the U.S. who did not attend preschool were 70 percent more likely to be arrested by age 18. Moreover, 44 percent of prisoners in California do not have a high school diploma or GED certificate.
A Washington Institute of Public Policy analysis of more than 20 preschool programs in the U.S. found that quality preschool returned an average net economic benefit to the community of US $15,000 per child in preschool, by cutting costs for incarceration, special education and welfare.
In the U.S., cost-benefit analyses conducted by the RAND Corporation show that every $1 invested in early childhood education programs produces $7.16 in societal savings.
Now, note that the Colombian government spends US $90 million a year on the Agency for Reintegration (ACR) for the program that helps former combatants demobilize and reintegrate and find their way as civilians.
Investment in early childhood education also makes economic sense because it opens businesses, hires employees, and allows parents to be able to work and so have money to inject back into the economy. In turn, the government can collect taxes from working parents and childhood education centers.
Providing early childhood education is also good for mothers, who have a greater chance to obtain employment and training. In Colombia, more women are demobilizing from armed groups. One out of four who demobilize is a woman. Forced abortions — which can be as many as five for a female guerrilla fighter — are the main reason for desertions. For these mothers, child care can be the single greatest difference between success or failure.
Early childhood education should include home visits starting during pregnancy, specially for young, first-time mothers, and continue over the first two years of a child’s life. A child’s home environment sharply conditions the efficacy of preschool.
Further, the style of parenting a child receives in the first three years of life is linked to success nearly 30 years down the line, evident in in a person’s academic and career performance, as well as their romantic and social relationships.
2. Investment in early childhood education is an investment in the future work-force.
In the U.S., poor youngsters enter kindergarten already four to six months behind their middle-class peers in oral language and pre-literacy skills.
Research shows that when children start school behind they stay behind. Quality early education programs give children the social, language and numbers skills they need; they prepare children, especially at-risk children, for school. They make children more likely to start kindergarten ready to learn, and therefore they do better throughout school. Children who get a good start are less likely to need expensive special education classes and are more likely to graduate.
In Colombia, since 2003, more than 55,000 combatants from illegal armed groups have given up their weapons. Sixty percent of the more than 40,000 or so former fighters who have joined the government reintegration program are illiterate.
Seventy percent of Colombia’s former child soldiers have only a fifth grade education or less, and eight and a half percent have never been to school. It’s challenging for a teen, or an adult, to re-wire and get on with an education having never been introduced to a formal school setting.
When children who attend quality early education programs become adults, they are more likely to hold jobs and earn higher salaries; and less likely to be on government assistance programs.
Related and alarming:
Recently, there were reports of overcrowding at all of Bogotá’s six Immediate Reaction Units, which have been set up by prosecutors to efficiently deal with people arrested as suspects in crimes.
Officials said there was no room at a local detention centre, and around 40 prisoners were handcuffed to each other, a fence, — and a children’s slide at a local park.
Children should not associate their local park with incarceration. A public park is a space designated for children to play, dream, be creative, build social bonds with each other, and build trust with their environment.