Tribune Democrat: Pre-k programs lagging in Pennsylvania
December 14, 2016 by John Finnerty

HARRISBURG — Most children eligible for public pre-kindergarten are shut out for lack of space, according to a report released Wednesday.

The situation is worse in rural and suburban schools, the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children found. Almost 3 in 4 children in suburban districts who are eligible for the programs don’t have access. In rural schools, more than 2 in 3 children are shut out.

“This is not a city problem, this is a Pennsylvania problem,” said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County. More than half of the children in his district who are eligible aren’t enrolled.

The programs are offered by public schools, private nursery schools, highly-rated child care centers or Head Start. The group wants the state to recruit more operators to launch programs and cover their costs.

Of 300,000 preschool-age children in the state, about 177,000 are eligible for publicly funded pre-kindergarten. The group says the state has pre-K programs in place for almost 64,000 children, but nearly 113,000 are shut out.

Eligibility for the progams is based on family income, lack of English proficiency or disability.

Rural areas may have fewer private operators able to run pre-kindergarten programs, said Joan Benso, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

School districts in those areas likely struggle to operate regular K-12 classes, so administrators feel they’re in no position to expand to preschool.

Federally funded programs, such as Head Start, are more anchored to urban areas, Benso noted.

Researchers found that 32 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have at least 80 percent of eligible preschoolers enrolled in pre-K programs.

Benso’s group is not proposing universal pre-K. Instead, it wants the state to pay to expand access to more children already eligible.

Eventually, if those needs are met, it would like to see programs opened to more families.

Benso’s group wants the state to boost pre-K spending by $85 million in the coming year, with a goal of increasing spending by $340 million by 2020-21.

That would be enough money to enroll all eligible children, she said.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget director, Randy Albright, noted the state is projected to have a $600 million deficit in the next budget year.

However, Wolf remains committed to boosting spending on schools and early childhood programs, he added, despite the headwinds.

Republicans who control the Legislature may be less enthusiastic.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, said before the state spends more on schools, it ought to ensure that money now stuck in the state Department of Education is trickling out to districts.

The state needs to find $1.7 billion just to cover existing expenses – as well as mandated increases – in the coming year, said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County.

“Everyone deserves a good education but the state already spends over 42 percent of the general fund budget on education items such as Pre-K, subsidized day care, K-12 education, colleges and student grants,” he said.

Researchers said about 2 in 3 children eligible for pre-K programs in Roae’s district aren’t enrolled.

There are 18 pre-kindergarten classrooms in his legislative district. Nearly three-dozen more must be added to meet all the demand, researchers estimated.

Longietti said investment in pre-kindergarten is needed to ensure new students can compete with their peers from areas where governments are spending more, even within the region.

Ontario, for example, launched a universal pre-kindergarten program in 2010. Two years ago, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio rolled out universal pre-K in the nation’s largest city.

Research supports those who say the investment pays off in the long-run, said former state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak.

Studies estimate $7 to $17 in long-term savings for every $1 spent on early childhood education, he said.

Savings come from reduced costs for services such as remedial education, social welfare programs and incarceration.

“It’s probably the most important investment we can make,” he said.

Benso said there’s no question the call for more spending on early childhood education comes as the state grapples with a difficult budget.

“The state is in a grave situation,” she said. “But budgets are about making decisions. And these children are not going to be able to be 3 or 4 again when the state’s budget is better.”

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