The Fight for Expanded Prekindergarten Gains Force in PA - Generocity Philly

May 20, 2014 1:27 pm

The Fight for Expanded Prekindergarten Gains Force in PA

If Pennsylvania funded prekindergarten for all three and four-year-olds, according to a report by ReadyNation/America’s Edge, the investment would generate $800 million in additional goods and services and create almost 28,000 new jobs statewide. Most importantly, it would benefit children across the state. Several studies show high quality pre-K has been shown to improve graduation […]

If Pennsylvania funded prekindergarten for all three and four-year-olds, according to a report by ReadyNation/America’s Edge, the investment would generate $800 million in additional goods and services and create almost 28,000 new jobs statewide.

Most importantly, it would benefit children across the state. Several studies show high quality pre-K has been shown to improve graduation rates and increase overall quality of life, according to the same report.

In this first part of a two-part series, Generocity looks at how the push for expanded, quality pre-K is gaining force as politicians and business and nonprofit leaders express their support for some kind of reform.

Building a Coalition for Pre-K

This is the video submitted by Pre-K for PA to this year’s DoGooder Awards. 

In Pennsylvania, this issue now has a cross-sector coalition at its back.

Pre-K for PA is an issue-based campaign started in January advocating for voluntary, high quality pre-K. It is made of up of 10 founding organizations, in addition to being supported by about 300 other organizations and 4000 individual supporters across the state.

The founding members include the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young ChildrenEconomy League of Greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Head Start Association, and Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

“Our goal is really to set the compass in a direction that talks about where Pennsylvania needs to be in the future and how do we get there,” said Jon Grabelle Herrmann, southeast campaign director for Pre-K for PA.

Pre-K for PA’s goal is to fight for policies that give every three- and four-year-old child access to early education. This is does not necessarily mean compulsory pre-K, similar to elementary school, but rather a mix of high quality, voluntary options that are also accessible to low-income and disadvantaged children

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Whatever the method, Pre-K for PA has brought the discussion around pre-K into the mainstream through aggressive advocacy across the state, using social media, events and press coverage. But the fight for better pre-K began long before the coalition formed.

In 2001, Pew Charitable Trusts launched a research and advocacy campaign called Pre-K Now that called for many of the same things that Pre-K for PA is fighting for today. But at the time, pre-K was not seen as an essential piece of a child’s education and instead a kind of day-care.

“When the Pew pre-K campaign started in 2001, there was very little understanding of the importance of pre-K as an educational issue,” said Sara Watson, former director of the PEW campaign and now national director of
ReadyNation/America’s Edge. “It was seen as just another year of childcare or a service that helps parents work, rather than an essential foundation for children to succeed later in life.”

Pre-K Now fought to change this by doing research on the benefits of pre-K and by bringing together people from a mix of disciplines, including teachers, physicians and law enforcement, to make the case that early education was a way to reduce crime, increase health, improve the economy and provide other myriad benefits.

State funding for pre-K increased from 3.8 billion in 2006 to 5.3 billion in 2010, according to a report by Watson looking back at the successes of the campaign.

Why Pre-K

Currently only 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s three and four-year-old children have access to high quality, publically supported pre-K, according to Herrmann. Roughly 12 percent have access to private pre-K, while 70 percent have no access or opt out of pre-K.

“Giving our children a solid foundation is one of the most important investments we can make. Research shows that children who start out behind stay behind, but no child’s destiny should be determined by his or her 5th birthday,” said Diane Castelbuono, vice president, impact, at United Way, one of the 10 founding organizations of Pre-K for PA.

One study, “The Economics of Inequality,” by James J. Heckman, often cited by advocates of pre-K, provides evidence that investment in early childhood education for disadvantaged children helps reduce the achievement gap and the need for special education, increase likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower crime rates, and reduce overall social costs.

In addition, “Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal,” a study by National Institute for Early Education Research, states that pre-K produces substantial long-term gains. These include improvement in social-emotional development, less grade repetition and special education, and increased high school graduation.

“Across party lines, the majority of Pennsylvania voters support increasing funding to ensure all children have access to high-quality pre-K programs and want elected officials to make early childhood education a priority,” Castelbuono said.

Watson echoes the sentiment that this issue is being embraced across sectors, in part due to the extensive research that has been done.

“The evidence that quality early education can help children do better both in the short term, in terms of special education placement and grade retention, as well as in the long term, in terms of their later education and their success as productive adults, is widely accepted,” Watson said.

So what’s holding up reform and where does PA stand in actually making serious policy changes?

Where the Candidates Stand

In the recent Gubernatorial Forum on Education, held at the Free Library of Philadelphia on April 30, candidates were asked about what makes each of their campaigns different in terms of funding for and the importance of early childhood education.

The Democratic primary candidates each offered their own take on the issue but generally said they supported some kind of increase in funding or the development of new programs:

  • Tom Wolf said he has a plan to restore $1 billion cuts to education.
  • Allyson Schwartz outlined her plan, called Keystone Kids, to provide universal access to pre-K for all 4-year-olds within a decade.
  • Kate McGinty’s said her plan would expand support for pre-K programs, including Head Start, by restoring the Corbett cuts and increase state support above the Rendell-era funding level by adding an additional $20 million.
  • Mccord proposed a $220 million investment in early childhood education.

In his 2014-2015 budget, incumbent governor Tom Corbett proposed an additional $10 million increase in spending for early childhood education, providing an additional 1,670 children with access to quality pre-school.

Corbett’s first budget in 2011-2012 decreased pre-K-12 education spending by 10 percent, or $841 million, according to Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan, statewide policy research project. The budget itself itself is very different from Corbett’s 2011 budget. However, the Center said in its analysis that without a sustainable approach to how it will be funded and an end to unaffordable tax cuts, the initiatives proposed in the budget may be short-lived.

While there is consensus that something should be done, what shape reform takes is still up for debate.

“I think there are a couple of fault lines.There are people who are concerned about how much it costs, and currently its expensive. This is not something you can do with a little bit of savings here and there. The flip-side is that all of the evidence indicates that you recoup much more than what you put in,” Watson said.

Generocity will look at how other states have improved pre-K in the part two of this report.

(Top image via Pre-K for PA’s Facebook)

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