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OPED New budget is new opportunity to prioritize our kids
While it seems like elected officials in Harrisburg can’t reach consensus on much these days, there is one topic where agreement still can be achieved: Pennsylvania’s children.
You might have missed it amidst all the ongoing budget wrangling, but there were some important victories for kids in recent months at the state Capitol. In December, the House and Senate voted unanimously to send Gov. Tom Wolf legislation to reauthorize Pennsylvania’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) through 2017 and added an improvement in eligibility determination offered as an amendment by a House Republican. The same month, we saw unanimous enactment of new law that can help foster youth find permanent families.
And just last year, we saw a bicameral, bipartisan commission partner with a new governor to develop a new formula to fund Pennsylvania’s schools.
The arrival of a new budget season is a prime opportunity to build on these successes for kids and turn around Pennsylvania’s lagging national standing as a kid-friendly state.
Pennsylvania ranks 17th in the nation in overall child well-being, according to the most recent national KIDS COUNT rankings. We’ve lost ground in recent years in important areas like children’s economic well-being and stagnated in areas such as education. Pennsylvania has lost ground because other states, even in challenging economic times, are making investments in children’s programs such as pre-k and education a higher priority.
As lawmakers and the governor begin negotiating a spending plan for fiscal 2016-17, they need to prioritize much-needed additional investments in child welfare, home visiting programs, child care and pre-k-12 education. These investments can help ensure every one of Pennsylvania’s nearly 2.8 million children gets off to a great start and has the resources needed to learn and succeed.
The strategic investments in kids that are being discussed include:
- A significant increase in basic education funding and an additional $50 million in special education funding for the 2016-17 school year. The partial-year budget already enacted for 2015-16 includes an additional $100 million for basic education, but we need to build on that investment to ensure basic education funding is increased by at least an additional $450 million over this fiscal year and the next.
- Just as important as the increased investment in our schools is the need to enact the formula mentioned above to distribute the basic education funds in a fair, predictable way that will ensure all students have a chance to succeed no matter where they live.
- $120 million in additional funding over two years for high-quality pre-k, which includes the $30 million in new funding already enacted for the second half of this school year. This can help us provide high-quality pre-k to thousands more 3- and 4-year-olds, particularly those who are at greatest risk of academic failure.
- $12 million in new child care funding to serve approximately 2,200 more children next year. Many Pennsylvania children live with parents whose work schedules necessitate child care, and increasing access to safe, accessible and affordable child care helps keep those parents working and our commonwealth’s economy running.
- An additional $10 million to serve 1,900 more children through evidence-based home visiting programs, building on existing state and federal efforts to provide these services. These programs allow nurses and other trained professionals to visit families with infants and toddlers to provide parent education and support and promote early learning and healthy development.
- Nearly $200 million in additional child welfare funding to ensure county agencies have the resources they need to help protect children from abuse and neglect and provide essential services to families.
The smart choice for our children—and all Pennsylvanians — is to prioritize these investments in our kids and generate the revenues necessary to fund them.
It’s time for Pennsylvanians to decide the direction we want to go as a commonwealth. Do we want to establish our state as a great place to be a child and to raise a family? Or are we content to lose ground nationally because we failed to make common-sense, strategic investments in our children and our future — investments that tend to save us all money in the long run?
We need a state budget that gets us moving in the right direction, and we can’t afford to wait another year.
Joan Benso is president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a statewide children’s advocacy organization.