Editorial: Legislature, Wolf should act responsibly on funding for pre-k programs
By: John Micek  June 15, 2016

Of all the investments that Pennsylvania makes on behalf of its citizens, few are more important – or have farther-reaching consequences – than the money it directs toward public education.

In fact, such an investment is mandated by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

It’s right there in Article III, Section 14, which holds that “the General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

And as important as the billions of dollars the state spends annually on kindergarten through 12th grade education and higher education are, the money it spends on its youngest Pennsylvania, those aged three and four years old, are critical for future success.

In its most recent budget request, the Wolf administration, has asked for a $90 million increase for preschool programs, from the current $166.5 million to $256.3 million in the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

That tally includes $60 million in new spending for 2016-17 and $30 million that the administration did not receive in the 2015-16 state budget.

If approved in full, the money would allow 14,000 more children access to preschool, PennLive’s Jan Murphy reported in February.

While that is a towering figure, it is, for a number of reasons, an investment worth making.

And it is a goal that Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders should work diligently to meet in the two weeks that remain before the June 30 deadline to pass a new spending plan.

For those reflecting on their own preschool years, perhaps recalling languid days filled with story time, coloring and naps, those days are largely history now.

Children in state-subsidized programs have an entirely different experience.

“We’re not talking about childcare,” Joan Benso, the president of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, told the PennLive/Patriot-News editorial board recently. “We’re talking about a school year/school day program. It requires state-certified teachers. It is an academically enriched program.”

This year, a 15,000-member coalition, Pre-K for Pennsylvania, which includes educators, advocates, members of the business community and retired military officials, are lending their voices to the call for increased funding.

They hope to increase taxpayer spending on preschool programs to nearly $500 million by fiscal 2019.

According to a January 2016 study by the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and the Pre-K for Pa campaign, only one in six of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds – nearly 300,000 – were enrolled in high-quality preschool programs and 70 percent of about 175,000 preschoolers at risk of school failure lacked access to these programs.

According to data compiled by the National Institute for Early Education Research, Pennsylvania now ranks 15th in the nation in access to pre-school for 3-year-olds. Five years’ previous, the state was ranked 11th.

The state is 30th in the nation in access to preschool for 4-year-olds, down from 24th place in the same time period.

With those rankings and the benefits of such programs in mind, the arguments for more money are compelling.

An early investment in a child’s education now means reducing the chances that he or she will drop out of school, get into trouble, and land in jail later in life.

“Early learning programs are a ‘fork in the road’ opportunity to reduce the number of future criminals by placing more at-risk children on a secure path to school and life success,” Cumberland County District Attorney David J. Freed said.

Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has also said that spending on early childhood programs are one of the best ways to reduce Pennsylvania’s ever-growing prisons budget. The agency’s general fund appropriation is set to rise from $2.25 billion this year to $2.6 billion starting July 1.

Spending on preschool programs also saves money by preventing grade retention and reducing special education placements in later grades. Estimates show that every dollar invested in such programs yields $17 in savings.

Better prepared children also mean higher-achieving children, thus resulting in young adults better who can “help Pennsylvania build the workforce it needs to remain competitive in the global marketplace,” said former Lieutenant Gov. Jim Cawley, now the CEO of the Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

There’s little doubt that these programs cost money – worthwhile investments rarely come cheap.

Read the full editorial here.