Lebanon Daily News: Op-ed: Lebanon Needs Pre-k
By Lebanon City Mayor Sherry Capello

Earlier this month I joined mayors from across Pennsylvania in our state Capitol to urge expanded access to high-quality pre-k. As Mayor, I am focused on the economic future of Lebanon. This process includes growing the tax base, ensuring public safety, making sure that Lebanon has good jobs and, equally important, making sure that we have the talent needed to fill those jobs. Expanding the reach of high-quality pre-k can help address all of these concerns.

Business leaders tell me time and time again the challenges associated with finding the right and qualified people for job openings. The state’s Department of Labor and Industry maintains a database of tens of thousands of open positions that go unfilled because of shortages in skilled labor. It is well documented with research that children who attend pre-k graduate with stronger academic and life skills than their peers making them more competitive in the marketplace.

What’s less well understood is that expanding pre-k actually creates jobs and stimulates local business growth. Here’s how it works: New pre-k programs hire new staff who pay taxes, broadening the local tax rolls. Those employees spend their new paychecks locally and the pre-k programs also spend money on supplies that help our local businesses grow.

Public safety, incarceration and young children are topics that should not have any connection. But the facts about pre-k and its effect on reducing crime are real. One of the nation’s most extensive studies that tracked child outcomes over 28 years found that children without access to a good pre-k program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested by the time they were 18 compared to children who had the benefits of pre-k. Those same young adults were five times more likely to be chronic offenders by the time they were 27-years-old than their counterparts who were enrolled in pre-k. That’s why one of the nation’s most respected Nobel winning economists, James Heckman, points to pre-k as the most efficient strategy for improving the outcomes of children who we hope to lift out of poverty and keep out of prison.

This research shows that by expanding access to high-quality pre-k we can reduce our crime rate and make our community safer. It’s also why district attorneys and police chiefs from communities across Pennsylvania have lined up behind efforts to invest in pre-k under the slogan “Pay Now or Pay Later.” Less crime means less money spent fighting crime. Imagine what we could do to improve our community or lower our taxes if we didn’t have to devote so much of our local budget to public safety.

By stimulating economic growth and reducing public safety costs, over time we are likely to see that expanded pre-k can take some pressure off the local tax base.

In the short term, pre-k reduces special education costs so our school district is likely to see more immediate returns. Research from Pennsylvania and across the country indicates that when children start school with two years of high-quality pre-k under their belts, school districts are seeing the number of children enrolled in special education services drop by as much as 50 percent by 2nd grade.

I am excited by the local support behind expanding pre-k access. Recently, our YMCA, with the generous donations by many residents, opened the Ed and Jeannie Arnold Early Leaning Center. IU 13 and the Lebanon School District as well as other county schools are partnering with community providers to maximize the impact of the resources that we have for early education. But unfortunately it’s not enough.

There are more than 1,300 income eligible three- and four-year-olds that don’t have access to high-quality publicly funded pre-k each year in Lebanon County. In communities across the state, that number is 120,000 young learners that don’t have access.

That’s why I am advocating for our leaders in Harrisburg to continue to expand access to this essential first step in education. We all want a safe and prosperous community that offers good jobs and good lives for every family. Investing early in our next generation is a productive way to help accomplish this. As our lawmakers begin to work in earnest to pass a state budget by June 30, let’s not forget the good that can be achieved by more ambitious funding of our pre-k programs.

Read the full op-ed here.