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Editorial - Learning lessons early

January 14, 1998

Should West Virginia fund programs to educate children as young as 3 years old? Gov. Cecil Underwood thinks so, and has put $1.6 million in the upcoming year's budget to start the process. His bet is that money spent early on will save the state from paying welfare and/or prison costs later. We'd like to hear more before we endorse this, in particular whether the program will be mandatory and whether it will be statewide.

There's no doubt that juvenile crime is taking a bigger bite of the state treasury than anyone anticipated. The Public Defender Services budget, which has tripled in just 10 years to nearly $18 million, will be $9 million in the hole this year, in part because of the cost of trying an increasing number of young perpetrators.

To deter young criminals and rehabilitate them, state lawmakers have introduced bills that would remove prohibitions against making young suspects' names public and to create a residential school for them. The Regional Jail Authority is also asking lawmakers to clarify its right to build juvenile facilities.

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That last fact alone ought to spur lawmakers to seek other solutions, because the jail authority's grip on contruction estimates has never been too firm. In the last five years, the cost of some of its jail projects have doubled prior to completion.

To prevent that, the Governor's Cabinet on Children and Families told lawmakers Tuesday that research shows children in pre-school programs are less likely to need special education, drop out of school or end up in the welfare and/or the prison system.

Sounds good, but we have two concerns. The results of a recent national study show children are better off in parents' care for the first years of their lives. Is 3 too soon to be away from mom and dad, even for half a day?

The other is transportation; keeping 3-year-olds in their seats on school buses may require an attendant in addition to the driver, adding to the costs.

Given the potential benefits of pre-school programs, lawmakers should answer these questions quickly, and if no roadblocks are found, move forward.

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