Opinion: Pa. must increase its commitment to pre-K education

The Morning Call by Cereta Johnson
September 22, 2023

As the new school year begins, I feel hopeful and energized. This year, we are able to open more Pre-K Counts classrooms serving an additional 38 full-time and 21 part-time students thanks to funding provided in the 2022-23 Pennsylvania state budget. That’s 59 more children who will be leaving Children of Joy Christian Academy ready to begin kindergarten next year.

Studies have proven that students coming into kindergarten from quality pre-K programs have an advantage over their peers who didn’t get the same opportunities. A recent report, “Kindergarten Impacts of the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts Program: A Statewide Evaluation” by Ellen Peisner-Feinberg of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows that children who attended one of Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts programs outperformed the other students who did not have this early learning experience — an advantage that equated to four to five months of learning gains, which is a substantial difference in development at that age.

Children who didn’t get pre-K education are usually not as prepared for learning and less confident when they walk in on that first day of kindergarten. They are more hesitant to make friends, less confident to ask or answer a question, are less willing to share, and aren’t as ready to learn.

The investment Pennsylvania already made into publicly funded pre-K is making an impact on the children who participate in pre-K programs. I personally get to see this each day as I watch our students grow.

As a provider of infant and toddler care as well as pre-K, I fully appreciate the impact high-quality early care and learning opportunities have on children and families. According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, brains are built over time, from the bottom up. The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Simpler neural connections and skills form first, followed by more complex circuits and skills. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million neural connections form every second.

Most parents understand the importance of these early, formative years and seek out these experiences for their children while they go to work. Unfortunately, according to a recent survey done by the Start Strong PA campaign, child care and early learning opportunities are becoming more out of reach for working parents as child care centers are closing, staffing for classrooms are at a crisis low, and costs continue to increase.

In our own area, I have seen the continued need as families struggle to find early care and learning opportunities for their children. I started my business in 2007 to provide care for three families. With the increased need, I have been able to grow my business to serve 120 children. And yet, according to the Pre-K for PA: All Children Ready to Succeed Lehigh County fact sheet, there are still waiting lists and many families without affordable, care in Allentown.

Without early care and learning opportunities, families are not able to join the workforce. Without employees, businesses will continue to struggle, and Pennsylvania’s economy will be unable to recover. Long-term solutions need to be made so that the tens of thousands of families who are struggling to find child care can return to work. Strides have been made to alleviate the high cost of these opportunities, but much more must be done.

We must address Pennsylvania’s devastating child care crisis — thousands of open staffing positions and more than 1,600 closed classrooms. A survey conducted by the Start Strong PA Campaign quantifies Pennsylvania’s child care crisis. According to the survey, there are more than 30,000 children on waiting lists across Pennsylvania for child care, and the industry has a staffing shortage of 7,000.

We must prioritize our children, especially in the first five years. We must hold our policymakers accountable to help solve the early care and learning crisis that we have in Pennsylvania. What better way to prioritize our children than to ensure that they have every opportunity for success, including high-quality, affordable early care and learning?

I’d like to thank state Reps. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, and Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, and state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who have continued to prioritize early care and education in Harrisburg, especially the significant increase of $79 million for pre-K in this year’s state budget. Also included was a $25 million increase allowing families enrolled in Child Care Works to continue receiving their child care subsidy even if their earnings increase to 300% of the federal poverty level. This investment in young children and their families is one of the most important the commonwealth can make. My hope is that this commitment to our youngest Pennsylvanians is one that continues in Harrisburg for many years to come.

Cereta Johnson is the owner of Children of Joy Christian Academy, Allentown. She started in the early care and education field in 2008 when she became a licensed family care provider.

See the full opinion piece here.