PennLive: Editorial: Legislature, Wolf should act responsibly on funding for pre-k programs
June 16, 2017

Pennsylvania lawmakers and the Wolf administration are now less than two weeks away from the statutory deadline to pass a new state budget.

As they run a fine-toothed comb through hundreds of line items in those laborious talks that will result in a final spending plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, we’d ask them to keep one worthy cause at the front of their minds.

And that’s state support for early childhood education, those critical programs that can have such an impact on a child’s future success or failure as a student.

In his budget proposal to lawmakers in February, Wolf, a Democrat, asked for a $75 million increase to two critical programs — Pre-K Counts and Head Start.

An alternative budget passed by the Republican-controlled House in April whittled that increase down to $25 million.

That spending plan is now before the state Senate, where the Republican chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Sen. Pat Browne, of Lehigh County, has rightfully earned a reputation as a forceful advocate for those programs.

That $75 million increase would fund pre-kindergarten seats for 8,400 additional students, according to Pre-K for Pa., an advocacy group. Growing that investment by an additional $340 million by the 2020-21 budget year would serve every child in Pennsylvania who is eligible for those programs.

While the commonwealth now makes a significant investment in those programs, it does have ground to make up.

A recent study by National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University shows that 19 states and Washington D.C. each make a higher per-capital investment in high-quality preschool programs.

Pennsylvania invests $682.17 per child, the study found. Fifteen states invest more than $1,000 per child, including such economic competitors as New Jersey and New York, the study found.

“Sixty-four percent, two-thirds basically, of Pennsylvania 3- and 4-year-olds who are eligible for high-quality pre-k still don’t get the opportunity to attend. Why? Because we don’t invest enough state money,” Joan Benso, of the advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, told PennLive’s Jan Murphy last month.

Yes, it’s true that the state faces a $3 billion deficit. And it’s true that lawmakers and Wolf will have to make some tough choices as they balance the books.

But among the many priorities that the two sides will attempt to fund, none is more important than education. And that investment, we’d add, is mandated by the Pennsylvania constitution. 

Article III, Section 14 of the document 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.”

There is no more efficient a delivery system for ensuring future success than a well-funded regime of early-childhood education programs.

Agreement on that truth goes beyond the partisan divide, it also stretches to officials who often deal with those who fail in school: prosecutors and the head of Pennsylvania’s state prison system.

Both Cumberland County District Attorney David J. Freed, who’s hardly soft on crime, and Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel have spoken out on behalf of adequate funding.

Making sure kids get off to a good start in school will keep them in the classroom and out of trouble, they have said.

“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,” Freed said in a 2016 interview.

An adequate statewide investment would also level the playing field between Pennsylvania school districts.

Right now, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Pennsylvania 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access to quality pre-kindergarten programs.

n House Majority Leader David Reed’s Indiana County-based district, for instance, nearly 4 in 10 eligible students do not have access to such programs. But in Rep. Greg Rothman’s Cumberland County-based 87th District, more than 9 in 10 children eligible children are also missing out. 

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

Still, in these our polarized times, it’s rare to find such bipartisan agreement on any budget-related item.

And given its implications for the state’s long-term economic and social welfare, it’s a topic that Wolf and lawmakers must seriously consider as they work to pass a final budget document.

See the editorial here.