Pa. First Lady Frances Wolf, educators, discuss proposal for increased funding for Pre-K

File photo: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and First Lady Frances Wolf. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

File photo: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and First Lady Frances Wolf. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

Pennsylvania First Lady Frances Wolf moderated a virtual panel discussion with early childhood educators on Wednesday to discuss Gov. Tom Wolf’s early childhood education spending plan. Wolf’s budget proposal includes $1.55 billion in basic education funding.

The plan calls for a $60 million increase in Pre-K Counts, a program that provides free half day or full day Pre-K for kids from households earning lower incomes, and kids with disabilities. Wolf’s office said that would allow 2,300 additional children to attend preschool. Wolf also proposed a $10 million increase for the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program.

“We know that children who participate in high quality Pre-K programs perform better in school, and they are more likely to graduate and to earn more throughout their lives afterwards,” Frances Wolf said during Wednesday’s virtual event.

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During the panel discussion, Robin Rohrbaugh, CEO of Community Progress Council in York, spoke of the importance of expanding access to early childhood education.

“If you don’t have childcare, you can’t work, or you have to take a position that is less hours, so you really have less of an ability to support your family. It actually ends up not paying to work,” she said.

Michele McEllroy, owner and director of Cuddle Zone Learning Center in Allentown, said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain what was budgeted for this year because of increased costs and inflation, food costs, supplies, utilities and insurance.

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“We’re given the same dollars year after year and have to make it work. And a lot of times this is on the backs of the teachers, because in the form of pay, you have your fixed costs, you have things that you can’t control. We can’t control food costs. So therefore the thing we can control is how much we pay our teachers,” she said. “So I think [Wolf’s proposals] will allow us to increase our salaries for our teachers. Keeping in mind, our Pre-K teachers have the same credentials as our public school kindergarten teachers, and yet the salaries are substantially lower and the benefits are also lower. So even if a teacher looks at this as an opportunity and this is their dream job, a lot of times they can’t stay with us because of pay.”

The panelists also discussed the need to increase Pre-K staff. Nearly 7,000 vacant daycare positions across Pennsylvania are currently sitting unfilled. The Cuddle Zone Learning Center’s two classrooms are operating at half capacity because of staffing shortages, McEllroy said.

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