Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and other state and local leaders visited Community Action Partnership in Lancaster on Thursday to celebrate $30 million in additional funding for early childhood education in the 2021-22 state budget.

Wolf began his visit by joining kids and CAP employees playing a parachute game outside. He and state Education Secretary Noe Ortega each grabbed a handle and, on the count of three, lifted the parachute as several kids excitedly scurried underneath before the parachute slowly fell to the ground.

To begin his remarks, Wolf thanked CAP for letting him play a game “I could actually play.”

Here are three takeaways from his remarks, as well as what others had to say on the issue of early childhood education.

A critical investment

The $40.8 billion budget Wolf signed June 30 included about $311 million in early childhood education funding, which is a $30 million increase from the previous fiscal year. Those funds, the governor said, will allow an additional 3,270 children to enroll in Pennsylvania’s high-quality early learning programs, Pre-K Counts and Head Start.

Over the past six years, the state has increased funding by $145 million for those programs, Wolf said.

Investing in early childhood education, he said, helps supports children at the earliest possible stage and sets them up for a brighter future, from improved performance at school and work to a healthier family life. It also supports parents looking for a reliable source of child care, he said.

Jan Bergen, retired president and CEO of Lancaster General Health and current Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission board member, said every child served by a high-quality early learning program yields an economic profit of $27,000, Bergen said.

The impact of early childhood education

Melissa Melicio, coordinator of resource stability at CAP and a Pre-K Counts parent, said it’s important to have a place to send her 3-year-old daughter, Kamilah Montalvo, where she knows Kamilah will be treated with love and care.

“Kamilah is happy,” Melicio, of Lancaster, said. “She’s learning and she’s thriving, and that’s all we wanted.”

Also in attendance was United Way of Lancaster County president and CEO Kevin Ressler and his daughter, Acacia. Ressler said the luxury of child care is underappreciated by many families, but the pandemic has pushed child care and early learning programs, particularly universal prekindergarten, back into the spotlight.

Too many families, he said, are stuck in a position where they don’t qualify for subsidized prekindergarten but can’t afford it privately.

“Universal prekindergarten is the objective,” Ressler said.

More work to do

Wolf said he supports universal prekindergarten but added that more funding, and higher wages for educators, need to happen before that occurs. Early learning programs, he said, have high turnover, largely because of the low pay.

Expanding access could be critical for thousands of Lancaster County families, CAP Lancaster CEO Vanessa Philbert said.

Lancaster’s CAP facility has 300 staff members and 40 classrooms, serves more than 1,000 students and has a wait list of nearly 150 children, Philbert said. Even now, she said, about 3,400 income-eligible 3- and 4-year-olds lack access to high-quality early education programs.

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