PennLive: If you think early childhood education is just snacks and nap time, you haven’t been paying attention
October 6, 2017 by John Micek

On a fine, early fall morning in 2005, my wife and I made the most difficult choice we’d yet made as parents.

A mere three months into our daughter’s life, we packed her into her baby carrier, drove the 10 minutes or so to the other side of the Susquehanna River, and handed her over to a daycare provider we’d chosen with more precision than the planning for the Normandy invasion.

I held my wife’s hand as she tearfully handed our daughter over. The knot in my throat was palpable. And every minute we did it, we questioned our motives and chastised ourselves as parents. But as a dual income household, where every spare dollar counted, there was no other choice.

A decade later, it’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

In that program, and then another one later on, my daughter got the tools she needed to be ready for her school career. At four, she was reading above grade-level, learning Spanish, and taking classes in Suzuki-method violin – all thanks to the program we’d found for her.

I fully recognize that we were lucky to have the wherewithal to find those programs for her, and that other Pennsylvania parents aren’t nearly so lucky.

Still, that’s why it always frosts me to hear people dismiss the importance of these programs as little more than glorified story-time, instead of what they actually are: key preparation, not only for school, but also for work and the lifetime of learning that comes afterward.

And in my experience, those arguments are often made by people who haven’t set foot in a kindergarten or pre-k class in decades, their memories trapped in amber, recalling something that’s long since ceased to exist.

And that’s just one of the reasons why strong state support for publicly funded pre-k programs is so vitally important. Every kid – regardless of their situation – deserves a fair shot at success out of the gate.

There’s a mountain of data out there proving what I already know in my gut: Kids with access to high-quality, early childhood education exhibit higher levels of proficiency in math and reading; they’re less likely to be held back in the primary grades and more likely to graduate high school; they need less remediation, and there’s less of a need for those “individual education plans,” often formulated for struggling students.

Those arguments were backed up this week by a new joint report by the Pennsylvania Principals Association and Pre-K for Pa. — a coalition of advocacy groups that that lobbies for increased state funding for these critical programs.

The 2017-18 budget 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 not too shabby.

But advocates say that’s not enough. They were thwarted in their effort to preserve the $75 million increase Wolf proposed back in February, arguing that it would fund pre-kindergarten seats for 8,400 school children.

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.

During a stop in the Pittsburgh are on Wednesday, Joan Benso, the forcefully enthusiastic head of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a leading group in that coalition, pointed out that more than half the families in Allegheny County who are eligible for publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs don’t have access to them, The Tribune-Review reported. 

Yes, $75 million is a lot of money – especially when you consider that Wolf and state lawmakers are locked in an increasingly high-stakes (and long past absurd) debate over how to pay for that $32 billion spending plan that landed on the governor’s desk nearly four months ago.

Here’s another reason why this spending is so important: Economic competitiveness.

Right now, 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.

And a 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.

Do you seriously want to be shown-up by … ugh … New Jersey?

Still,  if you’re inclined to dismiss Benso and her fellow-travelers as a bunch of liberal do-gooders intent on parting the taxpayers from their hard-earned money, consider one more argument as well:

Both Cumberlahd County District Attorney David J. Freed – who’s hardly a known radical – and Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel, are also fierce advocates for these programs.

The reason is pretty simple: Spending money on quality programs on the front-end means it’s far less likely that your kid will ever need to run into either Freed or Wetzel on the back-end.

“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, a Republican and likely central Pennsylvania’s next United States Attorney, said in a 2016 interview.

Read the full article here.