Pre-K for PA is a non-partisan issue campaign that aims to expand access to pre-Kindergarten to all 3 to 4-year-olds in the state by 2018. Now in its second year, the campaign has reached what could be its first major legislative victory: Governor Tom Wolf has proposed $120 million in additional funds to early education, more than doubling the state’s investment.
“The proposed budget puts $100 million into Pre-K Counts and $20 million into Head Start,” said Kate Philips, statewide coordinator for Pre-K for PA.
Pre-K Counts, which is Pennsylvania’s only state program that funds pre-K, was created in 2008 as a part of a comprehensive education bill. In past years, funding for the program has fallen just under $100 million.
Head Start is a federal program created in the 1960s that funds pre-K and which states have the option to supplement with their own funds. In fiscal year 2014, under then-Governor Tom Corbett, the state paid for an additional 5,643 slots in the Head Start program. That would jump to 8,000 slots with the increase.
“The additional funds will allow us to serve 14,000 additional Pennsylvania children and represent a down payment on the governor’s goal of providing universal access to pre-K,” said Jessica Hickernell, information specialist at the state Department of Education.
This breaks down to roughly $8,000 a seat per year, Philips explained. There are currently around 19,000 students enrolled in the state’s early education services.
The budget proposal is a great first step, Philips said, given that 70 percent of 3 to 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania currently do not have access to pre-K. Not investing in this age group’s education has a severe economic and social ripple effect, according to a growing body of research. It leads to a greater demand on taxpayers later on when individuals who are not properly educated require other social services to get by.
From the campaign trail to the state house
But while the benefits of increased spending on early education are clear to Pre-K for PA and its supporters, keeping the issue in the public eye has required the kind of committed outreach and promotion usually reserved for candidates running in an election.
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The campaign’s volunteers and regional coordinators worked through the last gubernatorial election to keep the issue of expanded pre-K in front of both voters and candidates. This involved having a presence at campaign events, distributing materials like pamphlets and lawn signs, and continually communicating their goals to candidates and the press.
“We distributed almost 2,000 lawn signs so that people had a way to show their support for the issue during a season when people expect to see lawn signs,” said Anne Gemmell, field director for Pre-K for PA and an employee of Public Citizens for Children + Youth. “It was a little unusual in the sense that it was for an issue and a cause, as opposed to a candidate.”
However unusual, Gemmell contends that jumping into the election season fray is key to getting people to care about an issue.
“For advocates, no matter what issue they’re championing, an election year is always a good year to do it because people who understand or are mildly interested in policy decisions are paying attention and the candidates are paying attention,” Gemmell said. “It is the time that we as a society have conversations about what the big vision is going forward.”
Elections are also a time when candidates latch onto ideas and make them a part of their platform. A number of candidates, Governor Wolf included, said they supported expanding early education. But Pre-K for PA, a non-partisan organization, did not endorse any of them.
“We are not an endorsing entity. We are just an effort that in some ways mimics endorsing organizations in the ways that we engaged in the public dialogue,” like putting out lawn signs or campaign buttons, she said. “We sort of thought of the issue as our candidate.”
Getting the budget passed
Now the campaign is shifting its attention back to Harrisburg, where candidates turn into working legislators.
Gemmell said that now, rather than acting like a political campaign, Pre-K for PA is taking cues from another mainstay of Harrisburg: lobbyists.
“Since we can’t afford professional lobbyists, we decided to mimic their successful tactics, which is constant presence, constant messaging from smaller groups that are doing face-to-face meetings, phone calls and letters from the editors,” said Gemmell, adding that leveraging Pre-K for PA’s partner organizations was essential to this strategy, given the campaign’s limited capacity.
The approach has yielded results among legislators on both sides of the aisle.
“Legislators are individually supportive in very large numbers,” Philips said. “The challenge is whether the legislature will prioritize pre-K when it comes down approving the final budget.”
State Rep. Dave Reed, Republican majority leader, for example, recently held a forum on early education in Indiana County that highlighted the need to improve math and literacy skills among the state’s young children. Reed has said publicly he supports expanding access to pre-K. State. Sen. Pat Browne, Republican majority whip, has also supported past increases to the state’s investment in pre-K and has shown support for the Pre-K for PA campaign.
The $120 million budget increase for early education, however, isn’t carved in stone. A lot could happen between now and when the final budget is passed in July.
“We now have a place at the table, but we’re not guaranteed a meal,” Philips said.
In addition, even if the increases are implemented, Pre-K for PA plans to keep pushing for more funding for early education.
“The additional funding would nearly double the number of high-quality pre-K spots available, but it would make a very small dent in the overall access of children age 3 to 4-years old in Pennsylvania,” Philips said. “$120 million doesn’t close the gap. $120 million doesn’t mean every child that wants access has it.”
Image via Pre-K for PA-30-
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