Sharon Herald: Wolf pushes for more early childhood education funding

Sharon Herald: Wolf pushes for more early childhood education funding

Sharon Herald: Wolf pushes for more early childhood education funding
May 9, 2017 by John Finnerty

HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf was joined by advocates for early childhood education Monday to defend his plan to boost Pre-K funding by $75 million.

Wolf’s budget proposals include $2 billion in cuts where he thinks the state government can manage them. But, he stressed Monday, he thinks the state needs to target increased spending in some areas, including early childhood education.

“It is proven that children who participate in high quality Pre-K perform better in school later on,” Wolf said. “They graduate at higher rates, they learn more now, and they earn more later. Good early childhood education levels the playing field for high- and low-income students.”

Wolf, a Democrat, said the investment pays off in the long run because the societal costs of not preparing children for school far exceed the upfront costs of preschool programs.

It was a point backed up by Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, a Republican.

Freed said that he won’t suggest the state should increase its total budget spending, but he thinks that the government ought to put its money on efforts that are worth the investment.

About half the inmates in Pennsylvania’s prison system dropped out of school, he said.

“That’s the reason so many in law enforcement support this,” he said. “Studies show the programs work.”

In Wolf’s first two years in office, the state upped spending on early childhood education by $60 million to $147 million for Pre-K and $49 million for a Head Start program. Wolf has proposed a $75 million boost for early childhood education in the coming year.

The additional spending would allow the program to add 8,400 children, the governor’s office estimated.

A budget passed by the state House would also boost spending on early childhood education, but provides $50 million less than Wolf has proposed.

House Republican caucus spokesman Stephen Miskin said there’s a consensus at the Capitol that the state should spend more on early childhood education. Republicans aren’t sure that the amount the governor is proposing is appropriate because it’s unclear that even if the state releases $75 million in funding that preschools would be able to ramp up quickly enough.

“We felt like a measured approach is the way to go,” he said.

There are a total of just over 20,000 children already enrolled in Pre-K counts programs using state funding.

That includes children enrolled in Pre-K programs and the Head Start supplemental assistance program. The Pre-K programs include families with income of less than 300 percent of the poverty line, said Casey Smith, a spokeswoman the Department of Education. For a family of 4, that eligibility limit is about $72,900, according to Education Department guidelines. The Head Start initiative is targeted at poor families, those with incomes at or below 100 percent of the poverty line.

Pennsylvania doesn’t spend as much on early childhood education as many other states, said Joan Benso, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, an advocacy group working to boost early childhood education.

“Pennsylvania is lagging behind,” Benso said.

On a per capita basis, New Jersey spends about $3,000 on early childhood education, four times as much as Pennsylvania does, about $682, she said.

“Seventy-five million dollars is a lot,” Benso said. But, the added spending is reasonable when compared to the amount of investment being made in other states, she said. When examining nearby states with similar standards for preschool programs, all of them, except Delaware, spend more per capita on early childhood education than Pennsylvania, she said.

Benso said that while Pennsylvania lawmakers are grappling with difficult decisions in crafting the budget, they shouldn’t delay help for the state’s preschoolers.

“It’s been a long time since people around here said ‘It’s going to be an easy budget,’ “ she said. “Our preschool children don’t have time to wait for the Pennsylvania budget situation to get better. They don’t get a do-over.”

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