PRE-K FOR PA’S PUSH FOR EXPANDED EARLY EDUCATION MAKES HEADWAY

From the election trail to the capital, Pre-K for PA has shown how an issue campaign evolves

Pre-K for PA is a non-partisan issue campaign that aims to expand access to pre-Kindergarten to all 3 to 4-year-olds in the state by 2018. Now in its second year, the campaign has reached what could be its first major legislative victory: Governor Tom Wolf has proposed $120 million in additional funds to early education, more than doubling the state’s investment.

“The proposed budget puts $100 million into Pre-K Counts and $20 million into Head Start,” said Kate Philips, statewide coordinator for Pre-K for PA.

Pre-K Counts, which is Pennsylvania’s only state program that funds pre-K, was created in 2008 as a part of a comprehensive education bill. In past years, funding for the program has fallen just under $100 million.

Head Start is a federal program created in the 1960s that funds pre-K and which states have the option to supplement with their own funds. In fiscal year 2014, under then-Governor Tom Corbett, the state paid for an additional 5,643 slots in the Head Start program. That would jump to 8,000 slots with the increase.

Overall the budget would add roughly 14,000 seats to high-quality pre-K classrooms, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This breaks down to roughly $8,000 a seat per year, Philips explained.

The budget proposal is a great first step, Philips said, given that 70 percent of 3 to 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania currently do not have access to pre-K. Not investing in this age group’s education has a severe economic and social ripple effect, according to a growing body of research. It leads to a greater demand on taxpayers later on when individuals who are not properly educated require other social services to get by.

From the campaign trail to the state house

But while the benefits of increased spending on early education are clear to Pre-K for PA and its supporters, keeping the issue in the public eye has required the kind of committed outreach and promotion usually reserved for candidates running in an election.

The campaign’s volunteers and regional coordinators worked through the last gubernatorial election to keep the issue of expanded pre-K in front of both voters and candidates. This involved having a presence at campaign events, distributing materials like pamphlets and lawn signs, and continually communicating their goals to candidates and the press.

“We distributed almost 2,000 lawn signs so that people had a way to show their support for the issue during a season when people expect to see lawn signs,” said Anne Gemmell, field director for Pre-K for PA and an employee of Public Citizens for Children + Youth. “It was a little unusual in the sense that it was for an issue and a cause, as opposed to a candidate.”

However unusual, Gemmell contends that jumping into the election season fray is key to getting people to care about an issue.

“For advocates, no matter what issue they’re championing, an election year is always a good year to do it because people who understand or are mildly interested in policy decisions are paying attention and the candidates are paying attention,” Gemmell said. “It is the time that we as a society have conversations about what the big vision is going forward.”

Elections are also a time when candidates latch onto ideas and make them a part of their platform. A number of candidates, Governor Wolf included, said they supported expanding early education. But Pre-K for PA, a non-partisan organization, did not endorse any of them.

“We are not an endorsing entity. We are just an effort that in some ways mimics endorsing organizations in the ways that we engaged in the public dialogue,” like putting out lawn signs or campaign buttons, she said. “We sort of thought of the issue as our candidate.”

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