Sunbury Daily Item: My Turn: Giving Can Only Help Pre-K So Much

February 11, 2016

The Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way has long made early learning and school readiness priority issues. We do this through United Way programs like Wee Read, which sends volunteers into our local WIC offices to read to children and distribute information; Every Baby Needs a Lap Top (your lap, not a computer), which teaches parents the importance of reading, singing and talking to their baby; Early Learning Investment Committee, a regional group of business leaders which advocates for investment in early learning; and pre-K scholarships.

Last year, we also invested $231,642 in funding to more than a dozen community partners, as well as in United Way initiated programs, for early childhood education initiatives.

We know — and research continues to confirm — that high-quality pre-k is among the best and most cost-effective initiatives for preparing children for success in school and beyond. It has been shown to significantly improve school readiness and increase the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment, which means better educated adults who enjoy stronger employment opportunities and earning potential.

Unfortunately, we also know high-quality pre-K is not accessible to many of this region’s young learners, in part because state investments in pre-K programs have not been aggressive enough. There are nearly 4,200 3-and 4-year-olds in Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties and only 16 percent of them are enrolled in publicly funded pre-K. This is well below the state average of 19 percent. Many of those missing out are those at greatest risk of academic failure.

United Ways and other community-based philanthropic organizations, as well as some strong visionary business leaders, have made strong efforts over the years to promote high-quality pre-K as a critical part of developing well-educated children, strong communities and an overall better commonwealth. But philanthropy alone cannot get the job done.

As with so many efforts to strengthen our communities, it takes a collaboration. In this case, we need the commonwealth to bolster its efforts to fund high-quality pre-K programs to reach those children who are missing out.

Especially troubling in Pennsylvania is the lack of access to high-quality pre-K among children at risk of academic failure. Across Pennsylvania, there are more than 175,000 3- and 4-year-olds who are at-risk because they are in lower-income households. Yet 70 percent of these at-risk young learners — more than 120,000 children statewide — had no access to publicly funded pre-k last year.

Northumberland County alone is home to about 1,700 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, and three-fourths of them lacked access to publicly funded, high-quality pre-K last year. The situation is worse in Snyder County, where 83 percent of at-risk young learners lack access, and Union County, where 79 percent lack access.

Read the full op-ed here.