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.

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“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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