After lagging behind other states on preschool education for years, Pennsylvania has taken a large step toward expanding access to such programs.
A budget agreement reached in July between Gov. Edward G. Rendell and legislative leaders provides $75 million for an initiative called Pre-K Counts, which will serve some 11,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds than are now covered by state-funded programs.
Improving early-childhood education has been a priority for the Democratic governor, but it took until his second term, which began in January, to pass the kind of program preschool advocates have wanted, said Joan Benso, the president and chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a group based in Harrisburg, Pa.
“I think he was feeling very seriously that this was pretty significant unfinished business for him,” Ms. Benso said about the new program. “In some ways, it’s better than what he asked for. It creates pre-K in statute, which we don’t currently have.”
Until now, the state has had three separate sources of money for early-childhood education: a school district program for 4-year-olds, supplemental funding for the federal Head Start program, and the Education Accountability Block Grant.
Districts primarily use the block grant money to offer and improve early-childhood programs for disadvantaged children, but can also choose from a menu of other options, such as offering full-day kindergarten or reducing class sizes.
Under the Pre-K Counts program, school districts—as well as private providers, such as child-care centers and Head Start grantees—will be eligible to apply for the money. Partnerships between public and private providers will be encouraged.
While providers will determine the families in their communities that are most in need, the aid will be used to target children who are at risk of school failure because of poverty, disability, or “cultural isolation.”
To offer the Pre-K Counts program, schools and centers will also be required to meet quality requirements under the state’s Keystone STARS rating scale, a program that encourages continuous improvement.
Providers must meet early-learning standards and pre-K guidelines set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The state has not been among those recognized nationally as offering high-quality early-childhood education. In the most recent State Preschool Yearbook, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, in New Brunswick, N.J., Pennsylvania’s $250 million block grant program met only two of the institute’s 10 benchmarks of quality. The 4-year-old kindergarten program met three of the benchmarks, and the supplemental Head Start program met six benchmarks.
Pre-K Counts, in contrast, will meet nine of those standards, which include features such as having a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, requiring ongoing teacher training, and maintaining low class sizes and child-to-staff ratios.
“We think the steps we made on quality are just as important” as the funding, Ms. Benso said. “This will put Pennsylvania clearly in the top tier.”
While preschool advocates are celebrating the passage of the new budget, which Gov. Rendell signed July 17, conservative groups in the state had offered an alternative plan. The groups said that the $75 million in the fiscal 2008 budget was merely a “down payment on taxpayer-funded preschool.”
The governor’s plan, the critics argued, also creates a “homogeneous approach” to early education that disregards the values of parents and local communities.
“Ironically, the push for universal preschool is in response to the poor academic performance of the same system that will control the vast majority of Pre-K Counts money and academic standards,” Nathan A. Benefield, a policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, wrote in a June brief with Jennifer A. Snyder, a research intern. “Yet the solution is to further expand that struggling system’s scope?”
The Harrisburg-based free-market-oriented organization had instead promoted the state’s existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which benefits companies that contribute money to precollegiate scholarship programs.
Calling its plan Pre-K Choices, the Commonwealth Foundation pushed for an expansion of the existing $5 million-per-year cap on the tax credit.
Other groups praise Gov. Rendell’s plan as inclusive and say it is better than a proposal four years ago that left the child-care community feeling shut out of the process.
“We’re pleased,” said Eric J. Karolak, the executive director of the Washington-based Early Care and Education Consortium, a network of nonprofit and for-profit providers. “This says that we need everybody to make everything work. Over time, this is a state that recognized building on the existing delivery system.”
Ms. Benso of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children noted that in launching new pre-K programs, some states have consolidated or “captured” dollars that were being spent on other early-childhood services. But the $40 million in Pennsylvania that is being used to supplement Head Start, she said, is “money well spent. We shouldn’t take it away.”
Likewise, she added, school districts will still to able to target block grant money toward early-childhood programs if they choose.
“There are real values in getting into this so late,” Ms. Benso said about the pre-K movement in Pennsylvania. “There are a lot of lessons learned from other states.”