PennLive: As Budget Framework Emerges, Preschool Advocates Fear They’ll be Squeezed Out: Analysis

By John L Micek

Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Republicans may be working out the fine print details of a nascent state budget framework, but advocates for early childhood education programs already fear the state’s youngest residents could get squeezed out of a final deal.

“If there is one clear way to spend state money and know you are making a real difference, it’s on Pre-k,” said David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive who’s part of a coalition pushing for the increased funding.

And even though a final agreement on a spending plan that’s now five months late is still a week or two away, at minimum, Cohen and his allies have been working the phones and prowling the Capitol, urging budget negotiators to give the programs a serious cash bump.

How much?

Here’s the debate, by the numbers:

During his budget rollout in March, Wolf asked lawmakers to authorize $120 million for both prekindergarten and Head Start programs. The budget plan the Senate approved back in June included $30 million for the two expenditures.

The two sides clashed earlier this week over how much early childhood education funding was included in the emerging framework. The administration claimed $50 million, which Senate GOP leaders disputed vigorously.

Right now, as is the case with most of the budgetary fine print, the total tally is a moving target, those close to the negotiations said.

So why does the number matter?

It’s all about access.

According to data compiled by the Pennsylvania Office of Early Childhood Development, nearly 17,000 students are on a waiting list for those programs statewide.

Advocates say the $120 million sought by Wolf would pay for 14,000 children, while $60 million would pay for 7,000 children. The $30 million included in the Republican-authored budget that Wolf vetoed in June would pay for just 3,500 students. They say that’s unacceptable.

And viewed in that context, the drumbeat advocates were sounding in the Capitol this week makes sense.

It’s a budget season truism that those who squawk the loudest tend to be heard, and, as a result, have their programs funded (sort-of) close to what they’re looking for in the final document.

But as one veteran budgeteer pointed out this week, most everything in the framework is still a moving target, and while entirely fretting is appropriate, it might be a tad premature.

That’s particularly true in the case of early childhood education, which just about everyone in the Capitol thinks is a good idea and which experts agree is critical for future school success.

The benefits are quantifiable and indisputable – and the agreed-upon need is truly bipartisan,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, far too many kids in our commonwealth are still not able to get into really good pre-k programs. The fix for this is within reach and is affordable.”

It’s also important to note here that one of the most vocal advocates for these programs is Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who has never been accused of being a European Socialist.

As ever, the debate comes down to how much, not whether, to spend money. And based on public statements by the Wolf administration and the GOP, that’s where things are at the moment.

Wolf’s spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said Thursday that “investing in early childhood education is a huge priority,” for Wolf, who is still “fighting for at least $50 million in increased funding for this year. It is unclear why Republicans are so resistant to this additional funding.”

Read the full article here.