Wolf wants additional $60M for early education

Jessica Schladebeck

Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday proposed an additional $60 million in state funding for early childhood education for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

In this file photo Pre-K co-teacher Megan Runk, upper right, works with student Dahjmir Gaines, lower right, on an iPad during afternoon work time at Hannah Penn K-8 School in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

The announcement comes on the heels of his proposal to up state education funding by $200 million for 2015-16, but before the completion of the current fiscal year's long-stalled state budget.

The additional funding for next year's budget, Wolf said in a press release, is contingent upon lawmakers passing the bipartisan budget compromise bill that fell apart at the end of December, as each investment is intended to build on the one prior.

Wolf had originally hoped to put $120 million in state funds toward early childhood education for the 2015-16 budget, an amount he halved over the course of the negotiation process. The partial budget he signed in late December added only $30 million, though he hopes to get to the $60 million figure by the time the final budget deal passes, according to the press release. Should lawmakers agree to a total of $120 million over the next two years, an additional 14,000 slots would become available to Pennsylvania 3- and 4-year-olds through the Pre-K Counts and the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program.

“We have a choice in Pennsylvania. We must choose a path that funds our schools, eliminates our deficit, and puts Pennsylvania back on track,” Wolf said during a press conference in Philadelphia. “I believe that Pennsylvania should be among the many states that provide universal pre-kindergarten for children, and I will work to make this a reality.”

Only 30 percent of Pennsylvania children in families earning up to three times the federal poverty level are enrolled in high-quality pre-K programs, a percentage which is significantly smaller in York County.

According to data collected by Pre-K for PA, an organization dedicated to expanding access to early education programs across the state, 84 percent of York County 3- and 4-year-olds — 9,169 out of nearly 11,000 potential young learners — do not have access to high-quality pre-K. Of those without access, nearly 60 percent live in families below 300 percent poverty.

It will take a total of $400 million in state investments to increase access to Pennsylvania children at greatest risk of academic failure, according to the same data.

Wolf will deliver his official 2016-17 budget address at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday in Harrisburg.

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.