Educators support pre-K proposal

Gov. Wolf wants $50 million increase for youngest learners

Advocates of early education programs are urging legislators to support Gov. Tom Wolf’s $50 million increase to provide publicly funded pre-K programs to an additional 5,500 children in 2019-20.

Since Wolf included that proposal in his February budget address, the statewide nonprofit Pennsyl­vania Partnerships for Children mapped areas across the state to show the percentage of children eligible but unserved by publicly funded pre-K programs.

An interactive online map allows users to sort the data for a wide view across state House and Senate districts.

Eligible children are those ages 3 to 4 living under 300 percent of the federal poverty income guideline (such as a family of four earning $72,900). That is the highest income threshold for publicly funded pre-K programs in Penn­syl­vania, according to the organization’s spokeswoman Carolyn Myers.

In two out of three Senate districts, less than half of the eligible preschoolers attend a high quality pre-k classroom, according to the organization.

In the 30th Senatorial District of Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, comprising all of Blair as well as Huntingdon and Fulton counties, there are 3,556 eligible children for “high quality” publicly funded pre-K programs and 50 percent of those children are not served by those programs.

“High quality” is defined as Pre-K Counts, Head Start, Keystone STAR 3 and 4 child care programs and pre-K operated by school districts.

An additional 98 pre-K classrooms are needed in Ward’s district, according to the organization’s data.

Ward said legislators must balance the interests of all state programs when deciding a budget.

“Expanding access to high-quality, early childhood education is a proven investment, and I support Pre-K Counts,” Ward stated in an email.

“I have supported the past two state budgets where pre-K funding has been in­creased and with that funding it has grown from $147.2 million to $192.3 million. As you may know, the governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year provides a $40 million increase to Pre-K Counts (and $10 million for another pre-K program, (Head Start) which should help additional children.”

In the 35th Senatorial Dis­trict of Sen. Wayne Langer­holc, R-Cambria, there are 3,446 eligible children and 49 percent unserved by public pre-K.

An additional 85 rooms are needed, according to the organization.

However, the data does not show whether those children not enrolled in public programs are benefiting from private programs.

There is no means at the state level to collect data of private-pay families, said Myers.

“We would hope that if the families are eligible, then public funds would be used to support the pre-K education because of their low income level,” she said.

High-quality, private pre-K costs about $8,800 a year per child to attend a program that operates during traditional school day hours over the course of a school year, so a three-member family living at poverty level earning $20,090 a year would have to spend nearly half of its income on pre-K enrollment, according to a report by the organization.

The data show that the sharpest difference of available public pre-K programs in Blair County lies across the border between Bell­wood-Antis and Tyrone Area School Districts.

Bellwood-Antis School Dis­trict relies on private pre-K agencies while Tyrone Area School District has multiple publicly funded locations.

“We don’t offer a pre-K program as there are many private programs available to parents within the community. Therefore, there is not the need,” Bellwood-Antis Superintendent Tom McInroy said. “When I first arrived in Bellwood-Antis (2014), we researched the potential for a pre-K program and found that the need is being served by these agencies.”

The data show Bellwood-Antis has 84 children eligible for publicly funded pre-K enrollment but no locations. According to the data, the need calls for four additional pre-K classrooms.

Tyrone Area has three publicly funded pre-K locations, 222 eligible children with 33 of them or 15 percent unserved by those programs.

Tyrone Area Superin­ten­dent Cathy Harlow said her district’s programs have been recognized at the state level.

“It is important for our district to provide quality pre-K programming due to our high population of children who are typically underserved,” Harlow said. “Many private pre-K programs require parents to pay tuition, which would preclude a large portion of our students from participating. It is difficult to make comparisons among districts because demographics vary from district to district.”

All the programs in Ty­rone Area provide a curri­cu­lum aligned to the Penn­sylvania Early Learning Standards.

Harlow said Tyrone Area employs five pre-K teachers through Pre-K Counts and Title 1 funding.

“We offer both full-day and half-day options for parents. Our pre-K programs are available to both 3- and 4-year-old children,” Harlow said. “Although we cannot guarantee placement in any particular program, we are able to accommodate a very high percentage of parent requests for pre-K. We also offer district-provided early intervention services for students with special needs ages 3 to 5 and an array of in-house day care options.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.