A challenging path to affordable, accessible pre-K in Philadelphia

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

When Jim Kenney took the oath of office last week as the city’s 99th mayor, he outlined a vision to help “make every Philadelphia neighborhood the best it can be.”

He highlighted expanded pre-kindergarten as a key part of this vision.

“For a young family, affordable pre-K can make the difference of whether or not they save for college,” he said.

The mayor’s push to expand pre-K is not coming from out of the blue.

It is in line with the city’s voter-approved implementation of the Commission on Universal Pre-K in June of 2015. Tasked with developing a plan for adopting affordable and accessible universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds across Philadelphia, the commission has been grappling with how to ensure that all children have access to high-quality care.

“There are quality deserts across the city, and if we were to look at a map we’d find that the areas with the highest need have low numbers of high-quality programs,” said Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children and co-chair of the commission. “We must start with these neighborhoods.”

A shortage of about 7,000 high-quality child care slots exists across the city, according to a report from The Reinvestment Fund, which uses investments to create opportunities for Philadelphia’s low-income community. In particular, Center City, the far Northeast, Strawberry Mansion, the River Wards in North Philadelphia, and Southwest Philadelphia have the most critical shortages.

Studies have found a strong correlation between high-quality early education and long-term positive outcomes such as K-12 cost savings, higher high school graduation rates, reduced crime, and an increased likelihood of college attendance and employment. Poverty is also less likely to persist from generation to generation.

Research shows there are short-term benefits, too. Shared Prosperity Philadelphia, the city’s comprehensive anti-poverty plan, reported that high-quality early learning promotes school readiness by improving early literacy.

“In Maryland, they have had pre-K for about a decade,” said Anne Gemmell, the city’s new director of pre-K, “The First Five Years Fund found that the vast majority of children [there] who had quality pre-K were ready for kindergarten.”

“By extension … kindergarteners who were ready to learn were reading on grade level by 3rd grade. Right now [in Philadelphia], our kids are going to school unprepared to learn.”

Funding the expansion

The commission will make recommendations on how to finance a universal pre-K system, but the “full costs” associated with expanding high-quality pre-K are still not understood.

A study from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, supported by the William Penn Foundation, reported that early care and education programs universally operate on the financial edge with no financial safety nets. They make short-term decisions from paycheck to paycheck because of their small, unreliable cash reserves and lack of operating surpluses.

The inability such programs to cover their expenses each year is a direct result of their financial model, the study found.

“It’s difficult to cover the high, fixed cost of care since the dollars follow the low-income students,” said Elliot Weinbaum, a program director at the William Penn Foundation, which funds research on early childhood education.

The financial model also prevents providers from setting high tuition rates. Government subsidies cover about 75 to 85 percent of a child’s true cost of care, which ranges between $10,300 to $12,800 per child depending on provider quality, according to the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Providers must complete an extensive process to collect all tuition fees.

“There are gaps in funding,” said Weinbaum. “No funding source is reaching the cost of care for each child.” Providers deal with an overly complex financial management system that required them to combine multiple revenue sources with child care subsidies, the NFF study reported.

Funding for pre-K in Philadelphia has traditionally come from the federal government in the form of Head Start funding and the Child Care Fund, with Pre-K Counts and entitlement dollars also helping to serve the city’s early education needs.

“There is nothing predictable about the the state budget,” said Gemmell, “We’re hopeful the state budget is resolved and a few extra million dollars come to Philadelphia for early ed, but we’re prepared to operate without it.”

The quality issue

Funding proposals are challenged by the need to increase not only the number of slots available, but also the quality of available slots. “It’s a balancing act between quality and quantity,” said Gemmell.

“Right now we’re talking about providing quality pre-K to children who currently lack access. We are estimating [it will cost] about $60 million,” said Gemmell. “We are looking to add local funding and better coordinate the existing investments, so we can get the most for our children out of existing funding.”

The commission has cited other, more long-term figures. To fully fund pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city, it is going to take another $500 million, roughly $120 million in state money each year for the next four years on top of what the state is already spending, said the pre-K commission’s Easterling.

“State governments aren’t dripping in extra money, but it has to come from somewhere,” she said.

Wolf’s release of an emergency half-year spending plan recently granted Philadelphia 1,500 new Pre-K Counts seats.

“While this number sounds large, it is a small step in the right direction, considering the need in all counties,” said Gemmell. It’s a “common sense investment in what we know works for children and families,” she said.