Preschool funding rebounds

Pennsylvania preschool programs could begin to bounce back from funding losses that a new report says have devastated enrollment.

Nationwide, preschool funding decreased $500 million in 2011-12, which raises questions about preschool access and quality, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Pennsylvania is a leading state in preschool funding per child, but it is one of four states with an enrollment reduction of more than 10 percent in 2011-12, which the institute attributes to a significant cut in funds after the Great Recession.

Pennsylvania enrolled 33,037 children in preschools prior to the cuts. But in 2011-12, it enrolled 28,790. That’s a drop of 4,247 students or about 13 percent.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2013-14 budget restores preschool program funding for the most needy children to a higher level than it was prior to the cuts.

“More funding from the federal and state governments is important, but we need to fill the gap for families who don’t have access to quality preschool,” Blair Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joe Hurd said.

In the wake of government funding reductions, Blair County business executives have been steadily moving toward fundraising to provide quality preschool opportunities to their future workforce.

“In Blair County, there are a great many children underserved,” Hurd said.

A chamber subcommittee less than 2 years old is developing ways to raise funds for families to access preschool.

In Blair County, there is always a waiting list of qualified children who can’t be taken into Head Start classrooms, said Roaring Spring Water President Dan Hoover, who is also chairman of the Blair agency that serves as a grantee for local federal Head Start programs.

One of Pennsylvania’s four pre-kindergarten programs that sustained cutbacks in the past two years dedicates funds to provide extended-day services and create additional slots in Head Start classrooms across the state.

Hoover said Head Start serves 480 children in Blair County.

“We could have double that number, [with more funding],” he said.

There are up to 8,000 children age 5 or younger in Blair County, and about 40 percent of those children come from families considered poor by federal poverty guidelines, Hoover said.

Despite funding reductions, Pennsylvania has set policies for increasing quality, and it’s difficult to afford them, said Julie Cover, executive director of Begin With Us preschool in Altoona.

The preschool has some classrooms funded exclusively for children whose family income and risk of failing in school qualifies them for free preschooling through state’s Pre-K Counts program.

In recent years, the state’s Pre-K Counts classrooms have changed. Teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree in early education, a curriculum developed by the state and smaller class sizes than were once allowed.

“We are showing tremendous progress,” Cover said. “We are just not fully funded.”

There are 6,700 children on waiting list for Pre-K counts in the state, said Cover, who is also a Pennsylvania Child Care Association board member.

“We have so many children, and funding is not there to support them.”

Pennsylvania’s largest cut to state funding supporting preschools was to the Accountability Block Grant used by public school districts to provide either preschool or full-day kindergarten.

But state funding for the Early Intervention program used by Altoona Area to provide preschool services to special education students and regular education students has increased over the years. Altoona’s Learning Express Preschool Program has grown and has been able to provide services to more students.

The district’s certified teachers provide free public education for 110 regular education preschoolers with half-day preschool, and they serve about 550 special education children at 30 area preschools and day cares.

About half of 3- and 4-year-olds with cognitive, social or communicative delays who receive early intervention services from the Altoona Area School District exit special education after preschool, said district preschool program Director Susan Barton.

Early education can also set a child on a path to success instead of crime.

A 5-year-old nonprofit formed by area business leaders with a focus on reducing crime is investing in preschool education for poor, at-risk children.

“The sooner you can intervene in families that are ‘at risk,’ the sooner you can provide positive child development models at their most formative age,” Operation Our Town Early Childhood Roundable Chairman and former Spring Cove Superintendent Rodney Green said.

“In 2010, Pennsylvania spent $1.8 billion on state corrections versus $190 million for pre-kindergarten programs,” he said. ” If public funds are finite, then let’s put them where they can have the greatest impact.”

Green said an effort is being made to create an Educational Improvement Tax Credit scholarship program that will provide tuition vouchers for families to send their children to quality preschool education programs.

Early education is being pushed by President Barack Obama as well as Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and Pennsylvania’s state politicians who comprise an early learning caucus.

Preschool providers and Blair County early learning advocates, including Hoover, said their government representatives are supporters of early education.

“The issue is that you have limited resources,” Hoover said. “Early education is the worst place to cut, but it is one of the easiest because preschoolers don’t vote, he said.