PennLive: Editorial: From a voice of hard-won experience, a simple argument for early childhood education
October 16, 2017

Some things seem so obvious that it’s a wonder that they’re even a matter of debate.

We know, instinctively, for instance, that if a child is given the tools to succeed early on in life that they are more likely to stay in school, stay out of trouble and go on to become an active and contributing member of society.

And that investment begins before a child even sets foot in the classroom through access to quality and widely accessible early childhood education programs.

Yet, as a recent report by the advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children reminds, Pennsylvania lags behind many of its neighboring states when it comes to taxpayer support for these critical programs.

The $32 billion, 2017-18 spending plan that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf allowed to lapse into law in early July without his signature increases state spending on two key programs – “Pre-K Counts” and Head Start – by $30 million from the year before.

That’s a significant amount, but it’s still less than the $75 million increase Wolf proposed in his February budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate.

Increasing state funding to that level would provide seats for an additional 8,400 children statewide.

These state programs serve families who earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, according to published reports. That’s about $72,000 for a family of four, which means about two-thirds of pre-schoolers statewide are missing out on those programs, the report indicated.

This is not new territory. We’ve advocated for similar spending before, recognizing the solid data showing that children with access to such programs exhibit higher levels of proficiency in math and reading; are less likely to be held back in the primary grades and more likely to graduate from high school; need less remediation, and show a reduced need for those “individual education plans,” often formulated for struggling students.

Yet we were reminded again of the urgency for this increased spending during a recent conversation with state Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel, a Corbett-era appointee, who has emerged as one of the more forceful advocates for these programs.

Recognizing that it’s easy for readers to be skeptical for a call for the state to spend more resources at a time when an agreement on paying for the state budget remains frustratingly elusive, we’re reproducing Wetzel’s remarks to the editorial board in full below.

We urge you to give them serious consideration:

“If you want to look at criminal justice reform, it actually has very little to do with criminal justice. We know that early childhood [education] works. But we don’t fund it because it’s cost avoidance 16 years down the road. And we’re focused on the next election.
“We know, for instance, that a black kid who drops out of school has a 73 percent chance of being incarcerated down the road. If we don’t do this, it’s a lack of courage on our part.
“It’s frustrating – and I don’t want to single out Philadelphia here – but it’s frustrating, at the back end of the system, talking to inmates, and there’s the kid who graduated from the Philadelphia schools can’t read Education is the answer. And we know that kids who grow up in poverty and gang-ridden areas experience trauma. And that has an impact on brain development. But we know we can undo it [that trauma].
“If we ever have the guts to fund this stuff – the implications for the next generation are huge. People would say they couldn’t believe we had that many people locked up … It’s just common sense to me.”

If you don’t want to listen to a newspaper editorial board. If you don’t want to listen to policy-makers or advocates, then listen to John E. Wetzel.

He’s the guy responsible for cleaning up society’s mess; for dealing with the worst of our worst and then finding a way to rehabilitate some of them.

Imagine, for a moment, how much better our society would be if there were less of that. Then imagine, for a moment, that there was a simple way to do that.

And that you could prevent it, years beforehand, from ever happening in the first place.

Wouldn’t that be worthwhile?

Read the editorial here.