PA Budget and Policy Center: Way No. 4 – Pre-Kindergarten Funding

Pre-K Expansion Would Enhance Educational Opportunity and Economic Growth and Pay for Itself Many Times Over

14,000 more children statewide would gain entrance into pre-kindergarten

HARRISBURG (September 21, 2015) – Reporter Erica Erwin noted in The Erie Times-News earlier this year, “The push to make quality pre-kindergarten available to all 3- and 4-year-old children in Pennsylvania has the support of someone familiar with a different kind of battle. Senior Judge Michael Dunlavey, a retired two-star general in the U.S. Army Reserve, said access to early childhood education is connected to the nation’s ability to protect and defend itself.” Dunlavey spoke to a gathering of legislators and local business and community leaders in support of Pre-K for PA, a statewide, non-partisan campaign for high-quality pre-kindergarten access for all 3- and 4-year-old children.

Retired military officers and business leaders may not spring to mind as your typical advocates for early-childhood education. But over the past decade, they have become some of the strongest advocates for pre-kindergarten programs geared toward children at risk of later failing school.

These civic champions know that programs like Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts help children stay in school and avoid a life of crime. The payoff is down the line when more young adults join the workforce – or are eligible for military service. Rigorous long-term studies estimate that high quality pre-kindergarten provides a significant return on investment – every dollar spent returns as much as $17 in reduced crime, education and welfare savings as well as higher earnings and increased taxes paid in adulthood.

Gov. Tom Wolf took office this year with a commitment to making publicly funded, high-quality pre-K available to every 3- and 4-year-old child in Pennsylvania. Legislative support for early learning investments also is strong. The bipartisan, bicameral Early Childhood Education Caucus is the largest issue-focused caucus in the General Assembly.

Even so, Pennsylvania’s progress in making smart investments in early childhood education has been too slow. Only one in six three- and four-year-olds has access to high-quality, publicly funded pre-K programs.

Gov. Wolf proposes to increase early childhood education funding by $120 million (88%), with $100 million going to Pre-K Counts. This increase would result in the enrollment of 14,000 more children in programs that help them develop academically and socially prior to entering the regular classroom. (To see an estimate of new pre-K slots in your state House or Senate district, click here.)

The Republican budget would increase Pre-K Counts funding by $25 million, adding only about 3,500 slots (including those created by funding for the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program. These 3,500 children would account for only about 1 percent of Pennsylvania’s 3- and 4-year olds. To compare the number of high quality, early-childhood slots added in your state House or Senate district under the Republican and Wolf budgets, click here). Slow expansion of quality pre-school hurts children and employers and reduces economic growth in a job market finally generating more opportunities for parents.

First grade teacher Lindsay Kiefer said, “Kindergarten teachers have a really tough time if students come in at varying levels of prior experience. Kids that come in with a pre-K experience are ready to take the next step. I had a little girl in my class who had the privilege of a great pre-kindergarten experience. She started the year with all of the basic skills and more importantly the confidence to tackle problems. With that great head start going into second grade, she was ready to dive in head first to grade-level topics and skills.”

Newspaper editors, civic leaders and Pennsylvanians from across the state have spoken out in favor of investment in quality pre-school programs.

For example, Snyder County District Attorney Michael Piecuch noted: “In Snyder County, 86 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds lack access to high-quality pre-K each year. In Northumberland County, 80 percent lack this access and in Union County, it’s 78 percent … I hope that the final negotiated budget will include more funding to expand access to high-quality pre-K, not only for its economic benefits but as part of a proven crime prevention strategy.”

Parent Jennifer Cebrick wrote, “Lawmakers and Gov. Wolf need to work together to create a budget that expands access to high-quality pre-K as much as possible so more children can benefit the way my kids did.”

Kiwanis leader Laura Katrenicz noted that, “Pre-K programs benefit not only the child, but also the community. High-quality pre-K reduces crime, supports economic development and growth, and saves taxpayer money that can be reallocated to other community needs.”

As the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette warned: “Only 31 percent of 4-year-olds [in Pennsylvania] attend preschool, most through public initiatives such as Head Start … What they don’t spend on early education today could be wasted on prisons tomorrow.”

Read more on Why the Budget Matters: Let Me Count the Ways.