With prison as backdrop, advocates stump for more Pa. pre-K

 Legislators, law enforcement, and their staff at the state prison in Chester, Pennsylvania (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Legislators, law enforcement, and their staff at the state prison in Chester, Pennsylvania (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

As lawmakers in Harrisburg jockey over Pennsylvania’s budget, a group of legislators and law enforcement officials gathered Friday to stump for more state pre-k money.

And they did it in front of an arresting backdrop — the state prison in Chester city.

“It’s no question how people end up behind us,” said state Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, referring to the barbed wire over her right shoulder. “Because we don’t invest in them.”

Gov. Tom Wolf wants to layer an extra $75 million on top of the roughly $200 million Pennsylvania already spends on government-subsidized pre-K. On Friday, Wolf’s Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel joined local prosecutors and police officials to stump for the money.

“When you hear 115,000 kids are eligible for these programs, but can’t get in them because we don’t have the courage to fund them, that’s a crime in itself,” Wetzel said.

The money in Wolf’s budget plan would give an estimated 8,400 low-income children access to pre-K, according to the administration.

A report released Friday in conjunction with the press event projected that Wolf’s proposal would save the commonwealth $244 million over the lifetime of the children enrolled by reducing special-education costs, boosting future wages, and cutting back on crime.

The report comes from the advocacy group Council for a Strong American, which includes law enforcement from across the country and positions itself as a counterweight to the “tough on crime” movement of the 1990s. The savings calculations were based on “a sophisticated meta-analysis of nearly 20 high-quality, pre-K programs for disadvantaged children,” according to the report.

In April, the state House of Representatives passed a budget bill that included some increases to pre-K funding, but not nearly as hefty a spike as Wolf requested. House Bill 218, which is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee, would increase state pre-K spending by $25 million.

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