Waiting for sorely needed pre-K expansion
By Shawn Towey on Nov 23, 2015 04:00 PM
Amid lots of distress about the impact of the Pennsylvania budget impasse on pre-K, the most critical budget issue for the city is actually pre-K expansion.
With its enormous unmet need for affordable, quality preschool, Philadelphia had been expecting a huge expansion in pre-K funding. Based on Gov. Wolf’s intention to add 14,000 new seats in the state’s two programs, Head Start Supplemental Assistance and Pre-K Counts, many applicant organizations went ahead and invested in readying classrooms and even hiring new staff, competing for certified teachers with experience in early childhood education. In April, 23 providers in the city applied for more than 3,800 new seats worth more than $30 million.
But nearly five months into the new fiscal year, leases have been dropped and classrooms that were readied for the new seats sit empty or have been repurposed.
SPIN, a large provider in Northeast Philadelphia with a strong track record of inclusive early education in both Pre-K Counts and Head Start, built out classrooms for 100 new seats. At Precious Angels in the Fern Rock section, the director hired the center’s first certified teacher, but had to lay her off after two months, when the expected contract hadn’t materialized.
Expansion is critical. Both Pre-K Counts and PA Head Start have been shown to help the vast majority of children become kindergarten-ready. One study showed that two years in Pre-K Counts also eliminated the need for special education for most children with developmental delays.
If a budget passes in December, money will begin flowing in a month or so. The big question is, how many providers will be able to gear up quickly to provide a half-year of preschool beginning in January? With only one in four preschool-age children in the city able to snag a high-quality, publicly funded slot now, parents should be eager to enroll.
When it comes to existing pre-K seats, most current Pre-K Counts and PA Head Start providers in Philadelphia work in partnership with the School District, which is the actual grantee. Because Superintendent William Hite didn’t want to risk disrupting early education for these children – and employment for their parents – the District has been making regular payments to its partner programs, cushioning more than 6,000 children and families from the direct impact of the state budget impasse.
Pre-K centers have taken a hit
Elsewhere in the state, pre-K has taken a hit because of the budget impasse, and centers are actually closing.
For current pre-K providers without a financial backer, four months without a budget and without state support have caused damage. In an informal survey that likely underestimates the crisis, the Pre-K for PA campaign identified 18 providers so far that closed classroom doors on almost 900 3- and 4-year-olds; 16 providers will leave more than 1,300 more children without care by the end of December.
No one knows how many working parents in these 2,200 families will have to quit jobs because of lack of affordable child care alternatives. In many cases, teachers agreed to work for half pay, or even for free, as their employers maxed out lines of credit. But the closings will accelerate the longer the budget is delayed.
These pre-K providers received state funding last year to cover tuition for families that meet income guidelines. With assurances that they would have their contracts renewed for 2015-16, but without a dollar from the state, they opened classrooms in August or September in the hopes that the state’s budget impasse would be resolved quickly.
What’s next for Philadelphia?
The state’s pre-K expansion could add a few hundred new seats in the city in 2016, or it could add thousands. We still don’t know how much of Gov. Wolf’s $120 million budget increase will survive the bipartisan compromise.
The Republican budget passed in June included an increase only one-fourth as large. At that rate, if sustained, it will take 16 years to meet the need – vs. four years under the governor’s plan. That means failing 12 additional cohorts of at-risk 4-year olds.
Word from Harrisburg last week was that the expansion number is still in play, probably to be determined by Senate leaders. Two years into our Pre-K for PA campaign, these lawmakers all know about the long-term benefits to children, families, schools, and even the state’s economy.
Pre-K expansion is less a partisan issue in Harrisburg than it is a decision to make investments whose payback comes in the long-term. Let’s hope our officials have the courage to make the right choice.
Shawn Towey is early childhood policy coordinator at Public Citizens for Children and Youth. She works on mobilization and policy with the statewide Pre-K for PA campaign.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.