Preschool programs can provide much more than “kindergarten readiness.” A quality program fosters interaction among peers, cooperative play, and problem-solving — developmentally appropriate skills that form an essential, lifelong foundation. But a majority of eligible children in Pennsylvania don’t have access to publicly funded, high-caliber pre-k programs.
According to the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, 58 percent of our state’s 296,960 children ages 3-4 are economically eligible for publicly funded pre-k; 56 percent of them – 97,702 — do not have access to such a program. In the five Central Pennsylvania counties comprising this magazine’s readership, there are 17,620 eligible children who are unable to enroll in quality, publicly funded pre-K education. To meet their needs, an additional 881 pre-k classrooms are needed.
Since 2014, the nonpartisan group Pre-K for PA has advocated for state funding directed to pre-K education. This year, it sought a $50 million increase in the 2019-20 state budget: $40 million for Pre-K Counts and $10 million for the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program (HSSAP). On May 28, 2019, Governor Wolf signed a $34 billion general spending bill that included $25 million for Pre-K Counts and $5 million for HSSAP. While the final numbers fell $20 million shy of its goal, Pre-K for PA is still appreciative of the funds that were allocated to preschool.
“Pre-K for PA always wishes we could go further, faster, but this investment once again shows that the Governor and the legislatures get the value of high quality publicly funded pre-k, and are committed to expanding access across Pennsylvania,” says Kate Philips, spokesperson for Pre-K for PA.
In May, a poll commissioned by group showed that 75 percent of likely voters supported increasing funding to expand access to publicly funded, quality pre-kindergarten, while 94 percent of voters believed that early education is important.
Jodi Askins, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of the Education of Young Children (PennAEYC), a member organization of Pre-K for PA, says that the job of advocating for state funding is never done.
“For us, it’s always, ‘Thank you and the need is still there,’” she says.
A 2019 statewide survey conducted by Pre-K for PA with the Pennsylvania Principals Association showed that nearly 99 percent of principals agreed that publicly funded, high-quality pre-k is an important tool for preparing at-risk children for kindergarten. Respondents represented rural, suburban and urban school leaders who are responsible for educating nearly 60 percent of elementary students statewide. Two-thirds of the principals who responded to the survey indicated that their district doesn’t provide pre-k and that they rely on local community providers.
“We have a mixed delivery system for preschool education,” explains Askins. Pre-K in Pennsylvania lives in four different settings — daycare centers, preschools, pre-K programs within an elementary school, and home visit programs. There are different needs depending upon the family, but most important are program accessibility and flexibility. “There are literally areas across our state where a high quality preschool program just doesn’t exist,” says Askins.
One key marker of a “high quality” pre-k program is its teachers or staff and their commitment to provide developmentally appropriate activities for children. One-half of the pre-K providers are childcare centers. These providers must earn a minimum of three stars in the Keystone STARS program to show that they’ve met quality standards in four key areas: staff education, learning environment, leadership/management, and family/community partnerships.
Askins stresses that the need for quality pre-k programs in the state goes far beyond any academic readiness. “Pre-k serves kids and families in a much bigger way,” she says. “If you ask kindergarten teachers what they hope to see in their new students, it’s not academic rigor. It’s cooperative play. Problem solving. Social skills. If they know their colors, that’s fine, but it’s not what is most important at that age.”
A survey of kindergarten teachers released in May by Pre-K for PA showed that 96 percent agree that students who attend a high-quality pre-k program are ready for success in kindergarten, and 98 percent agree that high-quality, publicly funded pre-k is an important tool for preparing at-risk children for kindergarten.
Kari King, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a founding member of the Pre-K for PA Campaign, said that while it’s no surprise that kindergarten teachers support programs that help students succeed in their classrooms, their collective voice is important.
“Almost immediately, kindergarten teachers can determine the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in their classrooms – or those children who have had access to high-quality pre-k and those who have not,” she says.
The state budget for 2019-2020 also includes $160 million for basic education funding and $50 million in special education funding — the largest increase in special education funding in two decades. Additionally, $60 million has been allocated for school safety grants for school districts across the Commonwealth.