Commission works on plan to expand universal pre-K

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

The mayor’s commission on universal pre-kindergarten is working to develop a plan, including recommendations on funding, to expand high-quality pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

The commission, which was approved by voters last spring, released a report in February citing benefits of the expansion and a $60 million annual price tag.

According to the report, two out of three of the city’s 42,500 preschool-age children lack access to high-quality pre-K. The expansion plans must address the issue of “high quality,” which is a challenge because only 29 percent of the city’s licensed early care and education seats are in centers that have high-quality ratings on the state’s Keystone STARS system. But it must also address the needs of an early education workforce that is limited by low wages and sometimes no benefits.

“We are trying to create a plan that builds on the best parts of our system and provides lots of resources for the child-care providers who are serving our most vulnerable children,” said Sharon Easterling, co-chair of the commission.

Studies from the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, an organization dedicated to expanding quality early childhood education, have found a strong correlation between high-quality early education and long-term positive outcomes such as increased high school graduation rates, reduced crime and poverty, and a greater likelihood of college attendance and employment.

Mayor Kenney has made pre-K a priority and outlined his plans for expansion. He proposed a $256 million investment to create 25,000 high-quality pre-K seats over the next five years. The funding would come from a 3-cents-per-ounce tax on soda.

The mayor said that establishing more pre-K slots would create jobs inside and outside of early childhood education and stabilize the workforce. There is also a return on pre-K investments. For every dollar invested in high-quality child care, the need for services such as special education and remediation is reduced.

The mayor’s plan has received a $15 million grant from the William Penn Foundation to create 1,500 new seats by 2021. The commission is slated to release its final recommendations in April.