HARRISBURG — Roughly 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s 3- and 4-year-olds don’t have access to high-quality preschool, a children’s advocacy group pointed out in a report released Wednesday.
Nearly 209,000 young children lack access to pre-kindergarten programs because their families either can’t find or can’t afford it, the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children found in its new report, “A Smart Choice for a Solid Start: The Case for Pre-k in PA.” Less than 18 percent, or about 53,000 children, are enrolled in publicly-funded pre-kindergarten programs statewide.
The report is part of a new push by a coalition of 10 nonprofit organizations to ensure every child has the opportunity to attend a strong preschool program. The coalition launched the “Pre-K for PA” campaign last month, in hopes of spurring lawmakers to devote more resources to early education as they develop the 2014-15 budget.
“Pennsylvanians want to see their tax dollars invested wisely in areas that benefit all of us, and they increasingly recognize that high-quality pre-k is one of those areas,” said Joan Benso, president of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. “It has a ripple effect throughout a child’s life and throughout a child’s community.”
Advocates say expanding public preschool programs will send children to kindergarten with more advanced math and language skills, reduce special education placements and grade repetition, and increase high school graduation rates and college enrollment. They highlight research that identifies long-term economic benefits of affordable preschool for all, including helping students achieve higher-earning potential and reducing the costs of crime and public assistance.
“No child is destined from birth to end up in jail,” Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan said in the report. “We would all much rather see kids in graduation gowns and caps than handcuffs and prison jumpsuits.”
The preschool access problem varies by county. In Cumberland County, the report estimates that 79 percent of children ages 3 to 4 don’t have access to high-quality preschool — defined as schools involved in Pre-K Counts, Head Start, Keystone STARS, public schools, Pennsylvania Department of Education licensed nursery schools or have accreditations by national associations.
Dauphin County has a similar number, with 75 percent of children without access to high-quality preschool, and Perry County had one of the highest numbers with 92 percent of its 1,113 population of 3- to 4-year-olds without access to high quality preschool.
Even for middle-class families, private preschool can be cost-prohibitive, the report states, with high-quality private preschool programs costing an average of about $8,800 a year. Programs deemed high-quality within the data survey include government-subsidized programs, public schools, accredited or licensed nursery schools and other accredited providers.
Considering the cost, the report pointed out the relatively high percentages of children who fall into the category of being below 300 percent of the poverty level. About 56 percent of children ages 0 to 5 years old in Cumberland County fall into that category, while there are 63 percent of the children in Perry County and 62 percent in Dauphin County.
In all three counties combined, 10,196 children ages 3 to 4 do not have access to a high-quality preschool, and 1,000 more have do not have access to a publicly-funded high-quality preschool program.
The report credits Gov. Tom Corbett and former Gov. Ed Rendell for being “strong supporters” of early education, but states that amid budget constraints support from Harrisburg has not been “deep enough.”
“Children only have one chance to be preschoolers and benefit from early learning opportunities,” the report states. “They don’t get a do-over when the economy fully recovers or policy makers agree that it’s their turn to be at the top of the budget priority list.”
Corbett’s proposed $29.4 billion 2014-15 budget does include an increase in funding for early education — to the tune of about $10.8 million, or a 3 percent increase over the previous year. The bulk of the increase — $10 million — would go toward the Pre-K Counts program to enroll 1,670 more students.
“This funding, combined with the recent $51 million we were awarded in the federal Race to the Top grant for early learning, means that Pennsylvania will continue to provide some of the best early childhood education programs in the nation,” Corbett touted in his Feb. 4 budget speech.
In its budget analysis, the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children says the governor’s proposed boost to early education “marks a down payment on the much larger investment that is needed to make high-quality pre-kindergarten accessible to more young learners.” The group notes that preschool participation rates for 4-year-olds are higher in neighboring states, such as Maryland, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia.
“Given the voter support for expanding pre-k accessibility, it’s clear the commonwealth should continue to build on the governor’s proposed increase,” the PPC analysis states.
The other nonprofits rounding out the coalition include the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, Mission: Readiness, Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, Public Citizens for Children and Youth and United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Natasha Lindstrom may be reached at email@example.com