Early education funding still fuels a hot political debate

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Maintaining Pennsylvania’s seven-year commitment to expand and improve preschool services was a prime point of contention in this summer’s prolonged budget stalemate in Harrisburg. And the debate illustrated the political lines that are drawn when early childhood education is at stake.

Gov. Rendell made it a signature point of his administration to put state dollars into early education, arguing that investing in preschool has a long-term payoff. He said it contributes to better high school graduation rates and reduces costs in other areas, including special education, welfare, social services, and prisons.

Legislators, mostly Republicans, called for cuts to the state’s relatively recent investments in early childhood programs. They said that it was unfair to raise taxes in a recession and that early childhood education is an expendable item.

Swirling beneath the surface are deep issues rooted in divergent views over the government’s role in child rearing and supporting low-income families.

The debate “is really around some fundamental values,” said Harriet Dichter, deputy secretary in the state’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning.

In this round of the debate, with a shrinking state budget, supporters of early education seem to have at least succeeded in staving off severe cuts – which puts Pennsylvania in a better position than several other states that decimated their early childhood programs.

In the final budget agreement, funding for the Pre-K Counts program was kept at the same level; Gov. Rendell had sought an increase and the legislature had wanted to cut it.

The Pre-K Counts program, begun in 2007, helps children acquire school-readiness skills at no charge to their parents. According to the state Department of Education, the program currently serves 11,800 three- and four-year-olds from families whose children are at risk due to either poverty, lack of English proficiency, or special needs issues.

Other spending, including Head Start Supplemental, was also level-funded. This means that 5,600 Head Start spaces paid for by state rather than federal dollars avoided the chopping block.

The state also will continue to provide subsidies to low-income working families through the Child Care Works program. The allocation, however, is not enough to reach all eligible families – those who are working at least part-time and earning less than 200 percent of the poverty line.

The subsidy allocation, according to preliminary reports, was cut minimally, and some federal stimulus money will pick up the slack. But more than 4,700 eligible families are still on the waiting list for subsidized care.

Other major initiatives impacting early childhood learning in Pennsylvania are Early Intervention services for children with developmental delays from birth to age five; the Nurse-Family Partnership, which serves low-income first-time parents; Head Start and Early Head Start; and the Keystone STARS program, which promotes continuous improvement in child learning centers.

Many other states are losing ground in the face of shrinking budgets. Due to lack of money, New Jersey shelved a five-year, $25 million plan to expand preschool to all low-income three- and four-year-olds in the state.

At some centers, Pennsylvania’s budget impasse did take a toll this summer that could last a long time. Centers that enrolled children of low-income working families were especially hard-hit when their subsidies were suspended as the budget deadlock dragged into September.

The Beautiful Beginning Child Care Center in the Bustleton section, for instance, cut staff hours and asked parents to increase their copay, which was to be refunded once state monies came through. However, some hard-pressed families opted to make other arrangements, according to Melissa Blatz, director.

Many early education advocates are now looking to the federal level for help. The Obama administration has spoken about the importance of early childhood education and has proposed an Early Learning Challenge Fund and the creation of Promise Neighborhoods with comprehensive services for children aged zero to five. This is in addition to long-standing federal programs including the Child Care Development Block Grants and Early Head Start. The House of Representatives included $8 billion for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, to be distributed to states over eight years, in a higher education bill passed in mid-September.

But the administration proposals, so far, are “thin financially,” said Dichter. In fact, much of the additional money invested by Pennsylvania over the past seven years in early childhood has gone to replace federal money that has remained flat or declined.

The debate over state and federal funding of early childhood education initiatives has a long history. Twenty years ago, conservative groups put forward two main arguments— one focused on costs, the other on the viewpoint that young children should be tended to by their mothers.

In the years since, published research has documented that children who were in high-quality preschool programs are less likely to need special services in grades K-12, more likely to be promoted each year and graduate from high school, more likely to find employment and pay taxes, and less likely to need welfare or enter the criminal justice system. One study even estimated that for every $1 spent on preschool, $17 was saved in the long run.

Skeptics have criticized programming, and Head Start in particular, as costly and lacking in education quality. They have argued that Head Start should be revamped and judged by whether its graduates gain certain literacy skills.

The stay-at-home argument was still being heard in the corridors of the Capitol over the summer, said Bruce Clash, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national group with a membership of law enforcement leaders and survivors of violence that advocates the lasting value of early childhood supports.

“We all have a stake in other people’s children is how we see it,” Clash said, adding, “When we talk to legislators, we hear that we’d be better off with moms at home and families intact. But we have to be realistic.”