Report finds Pennsylvania lags in early childhood education access, equity

 Pennsylvania received a D-plus on the Early Education Index in Education Week Research Center's  annual Quality Counts report. (AP File Photo/Troy Maben)

Pennsylvania received a D-plus on the Early Education Index in Education Week Research Center's annual Quality Counts report. (AP File Photo/Troy Maben)

A new report finds that Pennsylvania ranks 41st nationally, lagging behind New Jersey, Delaware, 37 other states and the District of Columbia in early childhood education.

This week, the non-profit Education Week Research Center released its annual Quality Counts report on state-by-state school performance for grades K-12.  For the first time, the report also looked at pre-school and kindergarten numbers, using information from the US Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The reported awarded letter grades based on pre-school and kindergarten enrollment numbers and looked at how family income affected pre-school attendance.

“There’s really kind of a data desert for this age group,” said Holly Yettick, director of the Education Week Research Center, which puts out the report. “It’s sort of an area where policy is all over the place.”

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Without national policies or locked-in government funding for early childhood programs,  “the private-sector plays a much bigger role in that area,”  Yettick said.

Pennsylvania, which received a D-plus on the report’s Early Education Index, did worse than most states in providing equal access to preschool for high- and low-income families.

The state did better on other measures tracked by Education Week, finishing eighth overall nationally.

But here are some of the data behind the low ranking for early childhood efforts:

More than two-thirds of kids from Pennsylvania families with incomes above $100,000 a year are enrolled in quality early childhood education programs. For families making less than $20,000 a year, though, that number is only about one in five.

The District of Columbia ranked first in the nation for early childhood education access and equity, while New Jersey and Delaware ranked 14th and 30th respectively.

Pennsylvania’s relatively poor pre-school and pre-kindergarten enrollments reflect a lack of focus on the issue from state government, according to Anne Gemmell, field director for Pre-K for PA at Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY).

“Over the scope of the last couple of years,” says Gemmell, funding for pre-kindergarten in the state has stayed relatively flat while “others states have leaped ahead.”

And she says Pennsylvania’s public pre-kindergarten program, Pre-K Counts, can’t keep up with demand.

In southeastern Pennsylvania — excluding Philadelphia — about 8,000 kids in each county qualify for Pre-K Counts. But Gemmell says “only a couple hundred are served” on a first-come, first-served basis. In Philadelphia, the number of kids excluded from the publicly-funded program is more than 25,000.

Gemmell says many parents are unable to afford private pre-school and pre-kindergarten, which can run about $20,000 a year for two children.

Gov. Corbett added more money to Pre-K Counts as recently as last year, adding $51 million to the state-wide early childhood education budget.

PCCY and others campaigning for universal pre-kindergarten in Pennsylvania say implementing that program would take hundreds of millions of dollars more than the 2012-2013 budget’s $165 million.

Advocates for universal pre-K point to data that the programs give at least a sevenfold return for every dollar invested — in the form of reduced spending on special education, social services and increased tax revenues.

Aside from the numbers on early childhood education, the Quality Counts report focused on three main indicators of school performance: financing (both rate and equity), “cradle to career” information from demographics to employment rates, and test scores.

New Jersey ranked second in the nation, after Massachusetts. Pennsylvania ranked eighth and Delaware 15th. These scores did not include the information from the early childhood education evaluation.

This disclosure: The William Penn Foundation, which funds the Pre-K for Pa. initiative, provides funding for education reporting to WHYY.

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