PennLive: Is preschool the answer to increasing the future supply of scientists and engineers?

By Jan Murphy June 2, 2016

Those making a case for more state funding for preschool programs often cite a myriad of reasons for this being a wise long-term investment.

It decreases spending on special education and increases graduation rates. It reduces the number of youths entering the criminal justice system. It boosts the number of 17- to 24-year-olds eligible to serve in the military.

Now another reason has come along. A new report links access to preschool to helping businesses and the military fill their future need for workers possessing science, technology, engineering, and math skills.

A Mission Readiness/Ready Nation report, titled “STEM and Early Childhood – When Skills Take Root,” being released on Thursday suggests that there is a growing body of research that indicates that interest in the science, technology, engineering and math fields takes root as early as preschool and kindergarten.

“Young children can learn more STEM content than we may realize,” the report states. “Good early learning curricula capitalize on the natural curiosity and exploration of young children and can build an understanding of math and science concepts.”

The report indicates that early exposure to math is linked to later abilities not only in math but in other subjects. At the same time, children with persistent problems in math at ages 6, 8 and 10 were 13 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school and 29 percentage points less likely to attend college.

The release of this report comes on the heels of last week’s letter to the Legislature from former Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and more than six dozen business, law enforcement, education, faith-based, and civic leaders that calls for providing the $90 million increase that Gov. Tom Wolf proposed for preschool in his 2016-17 budget.

An increase of that size would raise the state’s investment in preschool programs to more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

The letter signers see that as an incremental step toward growing access to high-quality pre-k for all income-eligible children and making it affordable to middle-class families as well.

“Such an investment will set us on a path to reduce educational, public welfare, and incarceration costs and have the most important added benefit of ensuring brighter futures for more of the commonwealth’s children,” the letter stated.

With an additional investment of the size the governor is seeking along with the $30 million increase provided this year, some 14,000 more income-eligible three- and four-year-olds could be served, according to Pre-K for Pa, a coalition of groups supportive of expanding access to preschool particularly for at-risk children.

Support for funding for early education stretches across the aisle in the GOP-controlled House and Senate but it seems to come down to a question of whether and how much revenue is there to pay for any increase it might receive.

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said any funding that can be raised beyond what is needed to cover the costs to carry the current state budget forward plus mandated cost increases would likely go toward education. However, it’s unclear at this point how any potential additional dollars would be distributed across the various education budget lines.

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