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York-area business leaders urge candidates to support pre-K push
Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President & CEO Joan Benso urges lawmakers to, "Step up and do more for Pennsylvania's kids," during a press conference in York City.
York County business leaders and child advocates this week urged candidates up and down the ballot in 2018 to make state funding for high-quality pre-K a major priority in their campaigns.
They say early education has consistently shown a return on investment for both the children and society at large.
York County Economic Alliance President and CEO Kevin Schreiber was joined Wednesday, Jan. 24, at the alliance's downtown York City headquarters by Advancement Solutions LLC President Michael Smeltzer and Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President Joan Benso for a news conference.
They made their plea on the heels of a report published last week on pre-K funding.
According to the report, titled “Pre-K works, so why not PA?,” 64 percent of eligible children — or 112,900 3- and 4-year-olds — are not enrolled in high-quality, publicly funded pre-K.
Pennsylvania ranks 18th out of 30 states in public funding for high-quality pre-K, with $792 invested per capita, well short of neighboring states such as New York ($1,736), New Jersey ($3,227) and Maryland ($1,005).
“We’re asking every candidate, ‘What are you going to do?’” Benso said.
Schreiber said data has consistently shown a correlation between early learning and improvements in a range of settings, from academic performance to reduced crime and increased wealth.
In fact, for every dollar invested in quality pre-K, $4 is returned to the commonwealth in savings and benefits from reduced remedial education and crime, according to the report.
Unfortunately, too few children get the chance to seize the early learning opportunity under current funding, Schreiber said.
“They will enter school unprepared for everything that follows until they have too little to contribute to our community,” he said.
While Gov. Tom Wolf and elected officials on both sides of the aisle say they agree on the effectiveness of pre-K, more state assistance is needed to ensure eligible children gain access, Benso said.
How much more? About $310 million, she said.
About $85 million more in pre-K funding is needed in the next budget cycle, according to Benso, with an additional $225 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year in order to serve all children at risk of failure.
While the numbers might seem high, current funding figures simply don’t meet the demand from parents and students, she said.
“Come fall, many (early childhood learning) service providers turn families away because they simply don’t have enough public dollars to bring another child in the classroom,” Benso said.
While she said the favorability of pre-K is universal, commitments on paper from candidates have been more elusive.
So far, none of the declared Republican candidates for governor have taken a stance on early education policy, Benso noted.
As a business chief, Smeltzer said many of the traits he looks for in applicants, including problem-solving and adaptability, are among the skills reinforced in pre-K classrooms.
Smeltzer is a member of the Early Learning Investment Commission, a state commission of business, education and civic leaders aiming to secure and improve public investment in early learning.
He was appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell, re-appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett and again appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
“It is not a Republican or Democratic issue," Smeltzer said. “This is an issue for the future of Pennsylvania.”