Morning Call: Op-Ed: David Lewis: Expand opportunities for children to attend pre-K programs

February 2, 2016

United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley has long made early learning and school readiness priority issues. Your United Way invests more than $850,000 in early childhood programs, including high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, for children from birth through age 5. We convene the Early Childhood Coalition with three working groups — Continuity and Pathways, Teacher Effectiveness and Family Engagement — all functioning to align our efforts to attain grade-level reading.

We know, and research continues to confirm, that high-quality pre-K is among the best and most cost-effective initiatives for preparing children for success in school and beyond. Quality pre-K greatly increases school readiness, supporting our goal to have 50 percent more students reading at grade-level by third grade.

Starting education early in youths positively affects high school graduation rates and ultimately college and career readiness. This yields more adults in our community who enjoy stronger employment opportunities and earning potential, which drives economic security in the Lehigh Valley.

Unfortunately, we also know high-quality pre-K is not accessible to many of this region’s young learners, in part because state investments in pre-K programs have not been aggressive enough. Pennsylvania is home to nearly 300,000 3- and 4-year-olds — including more than 15,000 in Lehigh and Northampton counties — but only a small fraction of these children are enrolled in publicly funded pre-K, and many of those missing out are those at the greatest risk of academic failure.

United Ways, and other community-based philanthropic organizations, have made solid efforts over the years to promote high-quality pre-K as a critical part of developing well-educated children. However, philanthropy alone cannot get the job done. As with so many efforts to strengthen our communities, it takes collaboration. In this case, we need the commonwealth to bolster its efforts to fund high-quality pre-K programs to reach those children who are missing out.

Especially troubling in Pennsylvania is the lack of access to high-quality pre-K among children at risk of academic failure. Across Pennsylvania, there are more than 175,000 3- and 4-year-olds who are at-risk because they are in lower income households. Yet 70 percent of these at-risk young learners — more than 120,000 children statewide — had no access to publicly funded pre-K last year.

Lehigh County alone is home to nearly 3,600 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, and more than 74 percent lacked access to publicly funded, high-quality pre-K last year. The situation is worse in Northampton County, where more than 78 percent of the roughly 2,700 at-risk young learners lack access.

Fortunately, this is a problem we can solve if state leaders begin to prioritize high-quality pre-K in much the same way philanthropic organizations have over the years. A new report issued by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and the statewide, nonpartisan Pre-K for PA campaign outlines a multiyear investment strategy of $470 million that will increase an additional 71,000 seats in classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds over a four-year span in Pennsylvania.

If Pennsylvania were to follow through on the investment strategy proposed, we could make publicly funded, high-quality pre-K available to more than 40 percent of our 3- and 4-year-olds by 2019, compared to fewer than 20 percent who benefited in 2013. Just as importantly, we could reach all of our commonwealth’s at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, helping to put them on track to academic success at an early age.

Read the full editorial here.


David Lewis is president of the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.