Paying for high-quality pre-K cast as investment in Pa. future

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One Wednesday morning at the Paley Early Learning Center in Northeast Philadelphia, 4-year-old Quincy was learning how to write the letter ‘L’. Tracing arrows with his finger, he repeated after his teacher the different parts of the letter: a long line and a short line.

 

Quincy is one of about 13,000 pre-K students in Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts, a program for families making under 300 percent of the poverty level. For context, about 39,000 children in Philadelphia alone qualify for the program.

Other kids might soon have a chance to enter free pre-K. Gov. Tom Wolf’s new budget proposes a “down payment” on early education spending, in the form of an additional $100 million to Pre-K Counts and $20 million more for Head Start next year.

That’s a lot of building blocks.

Pre-K, or preschool, is just one big-ticket item in a hefty $1 billion state education budget increase. While pre-K spending sometimes enjoy bipartisan support — and has received calls to actions from the White House — committing funds to early education is a tough sell in times of budget scarcity. But advocates hope that the long-term promise of pre-K spending will outweigh short-term budget squeamishness.

Pre-K vs. baby-sitting

Maddy Malis, CEO of the Federation of Early Learning Services, flips through a thick book of curricula for preschoolers. “Creative expression, social studies, scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, language and literacy learning through play …” The list goes on.

The Federation, or FELS, runs the Paley center along with eight other early-education centers in and around Philadelphia. Malis said these lessons — and having accredited teachers to pursue them —  distinguish a good preschool from run-of-the-mill child care.

Malis said that’s a misconception she has to correct, even among others in the preschool business. One colleague at a local community center, she said, “was clearly under the impression that we provided baby-sitting for low-income, welfare moms … it conjured up such a negative connotation, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Programs such as Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts, which Wolf wants to expand, do offer subsidized child care to eligible families. But their aims go far beyond baby-sitting.

Pre-K Counts and Head Start (the federal government’s program) require higher standards in early childhood education than many privately funded preschools, in addition to wraparound family and health services intended to raise families out of poverty.

“Middle-income parents, a much bigger group than the lower income group, are not paying for high quality,” according to Milagros Nores, associate director of research at the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Jersey.

“High quality is not the norm, it is actually the exception,” Nores said.

Pre-K tuition can cost as much as college

One reason high-quality care is scarce, according to Malis, is the cost.

Private tuition at the Paley center can cost more than $14,000 a year, and that doesn’t cover the entire cost of care. FELS raises funds and receives grants to make ends meet — and to provide subsidies for families above the income cutoff for federal programs. Middle-income families also can get help paying for preschool through federal tax credits.

Pre-K spending is not a silver bullet, according to Ron Haskins, co-director at the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

However, comparing studies on results of national and statewide pre-K programs “shows that there are some long-term effects and those effects are related to the quality of the program,” said Haskins. The biggest determinant of quality, he said, is qualified staff.

But making a political case for big-ticket pre-K spending is “a tough sell,” Haskins said. Thanks to long-simmering pension deficits in Pennsylvania and for the federal government, he said, “Money is at a premium, and there are a lot of programs and a lot of groups that are clamoring for benefits.”

In states that have successfully launched large-scale pre-K programs, such as Oklahoma, spending is framed as an investment. That’s the angle Wolf is working as well.

“We’re taking precious, scarce public dollars and we’re looking for priorities that are going to make our commonwealth better,” said Wolf in a speech to 1,500 early-childhood education providers in Philadelphia this month. “There is not a better investment we could make for this commonwealth than investing in early-childhood education.”

That investment is literal. Pre-K gets the biggest bang for its buck when resources are directed at the poorest children, although middle-class kids benefit too. According to a longitudinal study out of Chicago, the government saves about $7 for every dollar it spends on high-quality early education. That savings comes from reduced spending on everything from special-education classes to prisons.

Other studies put that return on investment even higher. That’s how these programs make a case for higher government spending, said Haskins.

“Everyone would like help paying for their house payment or their car,” said Haskins. “The difference in preschool is there may be a public benefit. That’s one justification an economist often uses for a program.”

Wolf calls his $120 million ask for pre-K a “down payment,” but some pre-K advocates believe his budget doesn’t go far enough. Pre-K for PA has asked for a government budget of half a billion dollars to ensure universal access to pre-K in four years. 

Next door in New Jersey, the 31 poorest school districts enjoy universal pre-K thanks to a landmark 1998 court ruling, a part of Abbott v. Burke.  Subsequent efforts to expand that program to other low-income districts have stalled in the state’s legislature.

Nationally, Pennsylvania ranks 39th for its access and equity in early childhood education, according to Education Week’s Quality Counts report.

This disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports both Pre-K for PA and WHYY.

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