Chambersburg Public Opinion: High-quality pre-k programs pay big dividends for economy
January 13, 2017 by Mike Ross President of Franklin County Area Development Corporation

“Pennsylvania’s gap between STEM job openings and people qualified to fill them is here now and, without preventive measures, expected to grow.”  This headline from 2016 grabbed my attention and concerned me from an economic development perspective.

A report from the business leader organization, ReadyNation, detailed Pennsylvania’s STEM skills gap:

–By 2020, more than 170,000 positions will not be filled by qualified in-state employees with the credentials employers demand.

–52 percent of Pennsylvania employers currently have difficulty finding hires with adequate education, training or credentials.

–56 percent of employers expect recruiting challenges to worsen.

–Business spend $189 million a year on retraining employees.

The report documented that these costly challenges stretch back to secondary and post-secondary schools. Two-thirds of Pennsylvania eighth-graders are not proficient in math and science. More than one quarter of students entering Pennsylvania state system universities enrolled in remedial courses, costing $153 million a year.

Clearly, efforts to engage young talent in STEM fields during the K-12 years matter, but this report pointed to a growing body of research showing that front-end investments in high-quality early childhood education truly plant the seeds of STEM learning.  For example: knowledge of math in preschool and kindergarten is a powerful predictor of later school success, not just in math but also in reading and overall achievement. Children with persistent math problems at ages 6, 8, and 10 are less likely to graduate from high school or attend college.

Findings like this have influenced state policy makers over the past several budget cycles and resulted in high-quality prekindergarten being available to thousands more eligible children.  However there’s much more work to be done.

Statewide, 112,900 three- and four-year-olds who qualify for publicly funded, high-quality prekindergarten are not served. That’s more than 64 percent of eligible children, according to “A Path Forward: Publicly Funded High-Quality Pre-K in Pennsylvania,” from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

Looking at Franklin County, fewer than 25 percent of kindergarten children who were eligible for publicly funded, high-quality pre-k received it.  This includes school districts like Fannett-Metal where only one publicly funded high quality pre-k classrooms exists – leaving nearly 80 percent of eligible three- and four-year-olds without access.

The unmet need, here and statewide, is fueling a campaign called Pre-K for PA.  This campaign has united a wide array of voices calling for greater access to pre-k including United Way affiliates, mayors, pediatricians, chamber of commerce leaders, prominent athletes, military and law enforcement leaders, and most importantly parents of young children.

All these people from varied spheres agree that investments in high-quality prekindergarten make a difference in the lives of children. Further research reveals that children from high-quality prekindergarten are:

–More likely to advance grades in school and have improved social skills.

–Less likely to need special education placements.

–More likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, ramping up their employment possibilities and lifetime earning potential.

–Less likely to commit crimes later in life.

For our communities, the need for less special education and criminal justice intervention saves taxpayer money. Plus, our workforce and economy are strengthened with educated people equipped with the communications and teamwork skills that employers value. In fact, every dollar invested returns $17 in long-term savings and benefits.

All these benefits help explain this groundswell of support for high-quality pre-K.

We believe that Gov. Wolf will, once again, prioritize new investments for pre-k in his upcoming budget proposal for 2017-18. The Pre-K for PA movement is calling for an $85 million investment to serve an additional 10,000 children. That investment should grow in future years, to reach all eligible children and help address affordability issues for hardworking middle-class families who deserve the benefits of high-quality prekindergarten but find it financially out of reach.

By uniting to make these investments a top priority, we assure that our children, families, and communities reap the benefits of preparedness for school and life promised by high-quality prekindergarten.

Mike Ross is President of the Franklin County Area Development Corporation and serves as a member of ReadyNation.

Read the op-ed here.