Lancaster Online: Editorial: We need more support and funding for pre-kindergarten programs in Lancaster County

October 12, 2017

Four-fifths of eligible Lancaster County children don’t attend high-quality, publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs, according to a new report produced by the Pennsylvania Principals Association in partnership with the Pre-K for PA Campaign. As LNP staff writer Alex Geli reported last week, the study reveals that most at-risk students — those from low-income households — are missing out on critical pre-K opportunities. That’s despite near-unanimous support of pre-K services among elementary school principals, Geli noted.

Perhaps, like preschool learning itself, this requires repetition: Children from low-income families who aren’t afforded the same advantages as other kids need high-quality pre-K.

We’ve said it repeatedly. Local educators have said it repeatedly. Local military leaders, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, United Way of Lancaster County officials, the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty … all have said it repeatedly.

And still, we’re doing an abysmal job of providing high-quality pre-K to the children in Lancaster County who need it the most.

Eighty percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in Lancaster County are not enrolled in a high-quality pre-K program.

That means just 20 percent — or 1 in 5 children — are getting the early education they need.

Statewide, 36 percent of eligible children are enrolled, but even that number is quite low.

Ninety-nine percent of the 1,300 principals surveyed said high-quality pre-K was an important tool for preparing children for kindergarten, especially children who are at-risk of falling behind. (We’re not sure which principals were among the 1 percent, but we’d advise them to do some reading on the subject.)

As Geli reported, Elizabeth R. Martin School Principal Barbara Andrews was among those surveyed. She said she sees in her school’s students the enduring benefits of high-quality pre-K. “It provides a foundation which enables these children to be confident and successful in their journey through school and in their personal lives as well.”

The School District of Lancaster is one of the largest pre-K providers in the county, Geli reported.

Several Lancaster County school districts, such as Pequea Valley, Conestoga Valley, Cocalico and Manheim Township, partner with third parties to offer publicly funded pre-K programs.

But most county school districts don’t offer pre-K programs. We’d ask them to consider doing so.

We know school districts already are overburdened by the demands placed on them by the state and by school populations with ever-expanding needs. But this is a matter of paying now or paying later.

According to the Pre-K for PA website, longitudinal “research studies indicate that as much as $17 is returned on every $1 invested in high-quality early learning programs.”

Starting a preschooler off on the right track is much easier — and much less costly — than trying to get him back on track when he’s in high school.

For school districts to be able to offer prekindergarten, the state needs to make greater investments in early education. More money has gone into early learning in the two most recent state budgets, but access to high quality pre-K remains limited.

The children’s advocates and educators who produced this new report want to see an additional $85 million invested in prekindergarten this fiscal year.

The 2017-18 spending plan approved by the General Assembly and allowed to become law by Gov. Tom Wolf added only $30 million to Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts early childhood education program and Head Start.

They would like that investment to grow to an additional $310 million by fiscal year 2020-21 to serve all the low-income children now eligible for publicly funded pre-K.

And then they’d like to see an additional investment of $100 million by 2022-23 to help middle-class families afford high-quality pre-K.

It seems like a tall order, meeting the needs of our littlest Pennsylvanians. But this is a vital task.

We can imagine some of you saying, “Well, I didn’t go to preschool, and I turned out just fine.” To that, we’d say you’re lucky, and we’re truly glad for you.

But research has shown that kids whose vocabularies and experiences don’t match those of their classmates risk falling behind. And once they fall behind, they generally need more expensive remedial instruction and special education services. Often, these children never catch up, which presents problems when they enter the workforce.

The better, more economical path is to pay for quality preschool. We’ll keep pushing this for as long as needed.

Read the editorial here.