Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton, left, District Attorney Aaron Felton, Independence Police Chief Robert Mason and Monmouth Police Chief Darrell Tallan read to preschool students at the Oregon Child Development Coalition in Independence (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Polk County law enforcement leaders want Oregon to invest in a new crime prevention strategy: preschool.

During a Tuesday morning visit to an Independence preschool class, Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton, District Attorney Aaron Felton, Independence Police Chief Robert Mason and Monmouth Police Chief Darrell Tallan urged lawmakers to invest millions in expanding free preschool programs.

“We need to be tough on crime, but also smart on crime. One way to do that is to ensure our kids and teens get an education,” Mason said.

The state will spend an extra $2 billion on education over the next two years, including $400 million for preschool and early childhood programs. Much of that money will go toward hiring teachers and upgrading facilities so about 5,200 more kids can attend free preschool starting next fall.

[ Help build Salem Reporter and local news - SUBSCRIBE ]

The message from Polk County law enforcement was clear: That’s great, but it’s not enough.

Even with that expansion, there is still not room for about 20,000 Oregon kids who qualify for free preschool.

“We can do better. We have to do better,” Garton said.

The four are part of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national organization pushing ways to keep kids in school and steer them toward a productive future.

The law enforcement leaders talked politics spoke at the Oregon Child Development Center’s Independence location before reading “Officer Buckle and Gloria” to a class of preschoolers.

Leaders with Fight Crime want to push for more preschool funding during the 2021 Legislature, state director Martha Brooks said, but the group is getting out the message early.

Research shows attending preschool aimproves the likelihood of graduating from high school and reduces the chances of struggling with behavior or discipline in school.

About 40% of people in prison or jail have not earned a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics . That’s twice the rate of the general population.

“Good preschool prevents crime. It strengthens communities. It keeps people out of jail,” Felton said.

The four joined Independence Mayor John McArdle, who said investing in preschool also leads to economic gains.

“In the working world, we want people to play well with others,” he said. The social skills employers value, like impulse control and compromise, develop starting when kids are young.

“An inability to get along with others is often what puts people on a path to getting in trouble with the law,” Tallan said.

The group also wants to see better pay for preschool teachers, who earn on average about $30,400 a year in Oregon, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s less than half the average for kindergarten teachers.

“Oregon should be able to attract the best teachers and retain them,” Felton said.

News tip? Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

READ: Thousands more Oregon kids can attend free preschool next fall