Commentary: Let Pa’s resolution for 2017 be expanded access to pre-k

January 3, 2017 by Pedro Ramos, Jim Cawley, and Sharmain Matlock-Turner

Resolutions – proactive measurable goals that pave the way for future success – help us launch the new year with purpose and direction.

Let’s resolve to build on the growing consensus for the wisdom of quality universal pre-K in Pennsylvania.

For our children, it’s essential to propel their path to learning through programs that lay solid foundations for achievement in education and in life.

A child’s brain is 90 percent developed by age 5. Falling behind during this critical time could mean a lifetime of having to run faster to try to catch up – or worse, never catching up.

A person who has a preschool education is less likely to drop out of high school, get arrested, repeat grades, and require remediation services. Research shows that children enrolled in pre-K programs can go on to earn incomes as much as 23 percent higher than what they’d earn had they not participated.

The benefits for our society as a whole also have been documented. Pre-K programs lead to a more competitive workforce. As such, they constitute an economic development program – the educational equal of business-tax incentives, property-tax abatements, and job-creation tax credits. A high-quality workforce is a key driver of job creation, as well as higher community earnings per capita, something that in turn enhances overall regional growth.

Pennsylvania’s lagging commitment to universal pre-K puts our population at an increasingly competitive disadvantage, even among our next-door neighbors. Nationally, Pennsylvania has dropped from number 11 to 15 for pre-K access for 3-year-olds, and ranks 30th in pre-K access for 4-year-olds. We serve only 26 percent of our 4-year-old population, compared with 35 percent in New Jersey, 42 percent in Maryland, 54 percent in New York, and 94 percent in West Virginia. Only one in six Pennsylvania young learners is enrolled in pre-K programs.

Just offering a pre-K program is not enough. The curriculum needs to be focused on the cognitive, physical, and social skills expected in today’s kindergarten, which no longer centers just on socialization.

Sadly, the amount of public funds available for pre-K in Pennsylvania provides less than 20 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds with access to high-quality programs. Since the annual cost of pre-K can rival a family’s rent or mortgage expense, on average amounting to $8,800 per year, it’s often far out of reach for children who would benefit most.

Additional funding could produce life-changing results. With $370 million in funding, pre-K would be available to the more than 47,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania who are at the greatest risk of academic failure. With an additional $100 million, 23,500 students in middle-income households could benefit. Those targeted investments could reach 125,000 children by 2019 – providing pre-K access to more than 40 percent of our 3- and 4-year-olds.

We simply cannot continue to withhold this opportunity for our children. As representatives of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, we ask you to join us in resolving not to accept anything less.

Pedro Ramos is president and CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation.

Jim Cawley is president and CEO of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.

Sharmain Matlock-Turner is president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.