Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s call to boost preschool education funding by $120 million statewide received Republican support Monday at a Head Start center in Lancaster. Wolf wants to boost overall spending to $256.5 million for the 2015-16 school year, up from $136.5 million this school year — an 88 percent increase that includes $100 million more for Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts and $20 million more for Head Start. Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts is a state program for children ages 3 through prekindergarten considered at risk of school failure and with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal income poverty level. Head Start is a federal program for families at or below the poverty level of $24,250 in annual income for a family of four.
Everyone seems to agree that high-quality preschool education is a net plus for society.
Then-Gov. Tom Corbett made a boost in preschool funding a selling point during his unsuccessful re-election bid last year.
Mission: Readiness, a coalition of more than 500 retired senior military leaders, supports preschool education as part of its focus on what it considers a serious national security problem. “Currently, more than 70 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. cannot serve in the military, primarily because they are too poorly educated, too overweight, or have a serious criminal record,” is how the bipartisan group defines the problem on its website.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman and Sheriff Mark Reese and state Rep. Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom, all Republicans, were on hand for Monday’s event to support the governor’s call for more preschool funding.
Both Stedman and Reese consider spending on preschool education an investment in crime prevention.
For those who did not attend preschool, or even kindergarten, these calls can be hard to understand.
Why, when many adults grew up just fine without it, is preschool education such a priority today?
One answer is the changing nature of employment. The jobs of the future — and even the present, including many military professions — require higher academic skills. Today’s complicated technology demands more advanced reading skills, and the teamwork environment of our complex, global economy rewards those with the ability to communicate effectively.
Another is the rising percentage of children in poverty.
According to an analysis of 2013 Census data by the Southern Education Foundation, 51 percent of children in prekindergarten through 12th grade are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
While poverty does not automatically lead to lower language skills, it does have an impact. Children living in poverty have fewer books in their homes, and therefore fewer opportunities to develop language skills essential to reading and writing.
A parent struggling to make ends meet — holding down two jobs or working overtime to pay the rent — is less likely to have time to read or spend time with a child. This gives a parent less time to help a child develop the social and language skills needed to thrive in the essential first years at school.
In Lancaster County, 83 percent of children who qualify for Pre-K Counts do not have access to a high-quality preschool, according to a report last year by the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.
A key requirement of any additional public funds for preschool education should be that those funds be spent on programs proven to have long-lasting beneficial effects on children’s learning.
This is important for two key reasons: Spending on ineffective programs is a waste. Programs exist that are proven to increase graduation rates and reduce crime.
The case for increased funding for preschool education is both practical and moral.
It is good for all of society to invest in programs that keep children in school, and ready to be productive in the workforce.
And it is only fair that we provide the opportunity to succeed to all of our children.