Pottstown Mercury: In West Pottsgrove, pre-k advocates press for increased state funding
By Evan Brandt 9/20/2017
Wednesday marked the day that the school district’s first 20 Pre-K students took their seats at West Pottsgrove Elementary School.
So perhaps it was appropriate that on the same day, in the same school, educators gathered to release the results of a survey on the benefits of early education and to advocate for more funding to spread those benefits state wide.
“If every child who needs it had access to high-quality pre-K, we would see fewer children struggling or needing special education,” said Paul Healey, executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association.
Between April 11 and June 18, his organization asked every elementary principal in Pennsylvania to take a survey about the importance of pre-K education.
Of the 351 principals representing 217 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts who responded, 99 percent either agreed, or strongly agreed, that it is very important.
“High quality pre-K provides the opportunity for children to get ready for school, helping build their early literacy skills, which provides children with the foundation to have the stamina and skills to be successful in elementary school,” said Terri Koehler, the principal at West Pottsgrove Elementary.
POTTSGROVE DEBATES, APPROVES PRE-K
Last week, the Pottsgrove School Board approved an agreement to host the 20 pre-K seats provided through funding from the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, but not before debating the matter.
Two board members, Robert Lindgren and William Parker, warned that should the state grant funding go away, “parents will still want the program and then it will become something local taxpayers have to pay for,” as Lindgren put it.
Parker, who voted no, said “schools are being asked to do too much, giving parents an excuse not to parent.”
But School Board President Matt Alexander and board member Rick Rabinowitz disagreed.
“There are lots of families in this district where both parents have to work and they have no choice but to access some kind of day care,” said Rabinowitz. “If this is an upgrade, that’s nothing but good for the students, the parents and the district.”
“We have 20 kids who need help who are going to get help as a result of this program,” said Rabinowitz. “This is a no-brainer.”
“When families don’t have access to pre-K, the are behind when they come to kindergarten,” Koheler told the board. “We talk about an achievement gap, well without pre-K, it’s there when they start.”
“I wish there were more seats available,” said Alexander. “This will make a huge difference in the quality of life for many of our families.”
STATE BUDGET PROVIDES MORE
There are more seats available this year state wide.
According to information provided by the Pre-K for PA Campaign, funding for pre-K was increased by $30 million in this year’s budget, adding 3,500 new pre-K seats to classrooms across Pennsylvania.
Locally, four early education programs in the Greater Pottstown Area have received an additional $1 million through the new state budget, as Digital First Media reported last month.
At $357,000, Pottstown School District received the region’s largest grant, which is in addition to the grant money it already receives from that program.
Pottstown can now offer a full day Pre-K Counts classroom at Franklin, Lincoln and Rupert elementary schools, in addition to the Barth pre-K classroom that started last year.
The grant funding, combined with district funds, means the district can now offer a full-day 4K classroom experience to all families of 4-year-old children regardless of income, as long as they reside in Pottstown School District.
The Owen J. Roberts School District in South Coventry received a grant of $170,000, which allows the district to bring up to 100 the number of students it serves through a partnership with Warwick Child Care.
Additionally, the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit received $340,000 and a portion of that money was used to provide the 20 seats at West Pottsgrove Elementary School.
BUDGET IMPASSE A THREAT
But all of those additional education opportunities could be at risk if the General Assembly cannot agree on a revenue program to fund the spending plan it adopted at the end of June.
“We’re in a crisis,” said Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. “Without a resolution of this half-baked budget, the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit will not get paid on Sept. 30 and we could have to tell all these children who just started school they have to go home.”
SUBURBS HAVE MOST UNMET NEED
Even if the budget matter is resolved, and with the additional funding budgeted this year, fully two-thirds of the Pennsylvania students eligible for access to pre-K — nearly 113,000 children — still don’t get it, said Benso.
An additional $310 million in state funding for pre-K by 2022 would provide access to every at-risk child in Pennsylvania, and $100 million more would open that access to middle income families, according to the Pre-K for PA campaign.
The percentage of underserved children is highest right here in the suburbs, according to a recent report by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children titled “A Path Forward.” It found that 74 percent of income-eligible preschool students in the suburbs are not served.
According to an interactive map in the report, the local districts with the most unmet need — 80 percent or more of eligible children not receiving early education — are Daniel Boone, Boyertown and Upper Perkiomen.
In Spring-Ford, Owen J. Roberts, Perkiomen Valley and Pottsgrove, 60 to 80 percent of eligible children do not receive pre-K education.
The districts best meeting the early education needs of eligible children are Pottstown and Phoenixville, each of which nevertheless has 40 to 60 percent of eligible children not being served, according to the report.
GOOD RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Serving those at-risk children is a good investment, Benso said, pointing to research by University of Chicago professor and winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, James J. Heckman.
Heckman’s analysis of one pre-school program showed a 7-to-10 percent, per-year return on investment based on increased school and career achievement as well as reduced costs in remedial education, health and criminal justice system expenditures, according to his web site.
The authors of “A Path Forward,” went further, writing that “every dollar invested in high-quality pre-K returns up to $17 in long-term savings and benefits.”
According to the report, “children who benefit from high quality pre-K are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to graduate and attend college, boosting their employment opportunities and earning power while reducing social services costs.”
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