Bradford Era: Pre-k Cuts Spare Area While Expansion is Needed, Expert Says

By COLIN DEPPEN

The closure of Pennsylvania Pre-K programs due to the ongoing state budget impasse in Harrisburg won’t impact the local four-county region, according to experts who say a possible expansion of Pre-K services found in competing budget proposals still on the floor might actually help children here.

The announcement made last week had Pre-K programs serving Pennsylvania children set to become the latest casualty of a bitter budget battle in the capital now into its fourth month, following non-profits and school districts with state funding already suspended or threatened by the deadlock.

According to reports, 19 early childhood learning centers certified under Pennsylvania’s state subsidized Pre-Kindergarten program are expected to close their doors by Nov. 10, with at least 800 children hanging in the balance. Those centers report having exhausted savings and low-interest loans to cover the gap while the budget delay leaves funding frozen.

The centers, funded through the state’s Pre-K Counts program, serve 14,000 children in total.
Of them, an estimated 161 live in the local four-county region — 15 in Cameron County; 65 in McKean County; 49 in Elk County; and 32 in Potter County, according to numbers provided by the state Department of Education.

None are expected to lose funding or access as a result of the budget fight.

In fact, Pre-K for Pa. Coalition spokeswoman, Kate Philips, said children in northcentral Pennsylvania could stand to benefit from contested budget proposals now on the floor, both of which contain funding increases for Pre-K programs: $30 million in the GOP’s budget and $120 million in that of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Philips said Wolf’s proposal would add as many as 14,000 new kids to Pre-K programs, while the GOP budget would add 3,500, adding any increase or expansion of services is welcomed.

The numbers are out of a total 204,406 children, ages three and four, in Pennsylvania, with 69 percent of them lacking access to Pre-K services currently, the Coalition reports.

According to numbers provided by Pre-K for Pa., the number of children unserved or underserved by Pre-K programs remains disproportionately high in northcentral Pennsylvania.

In McKean County, an estimated 59 percent or 591 children of a total 1,008, ages three and four, lack access to high-quality Pre-K, with nearly three-fourths of children in the age bracket living below 300 percent poverty here.

In Elk County, 77 percent or 520 of a total 671 children, ages three and four, did not have access to high quality Pre-K, with 67 percent of children in the age group living below 300 percent poverty.

In Potter County, 67 percent or 268 children of a total 400, ages three and four, did not have access to high quality Pre-K, with 72 percent of the age group there living below 300 percent poverty.

In Cameron County, 45 percent or 36 of 80 total children, ages three and four, didn’t have access to Pre-K, with 72 percent of children in the age group there living below 300 percent poverty.

“There is a large number of children not being served in (rural Pennsylvania),” Philips said.
“These are not just urban problems … Part of the conversation is about expanding access. There is a real need.”

Embroiled in budget talks, Republican legislators like Matt Gabler, R-DuBois, say their plan for a $30 million Pre-K funding hike amounts to “responsible budgeting based on real numbers,” while criticizing Wolf for income tax hikes they say will be necessary to fund his loftier ambitions.

“Our $30.2 billion balanced budget that passed the Legislature on June 30 provided responsible increased investment in schools, human services and other programs such as Pre-K Counts,” Gabler said.

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