Pre-K Works, but Only for Those with Access

The amount of public funding available for Pre-K in Pennsylvania covers less than 20 percent of the 3-and-4-year-olds that need it.  The annual cost of private pre-k can rival the cost of college tuition, forcing too many families to go without a high-quality program essential to their children’s success.  Public concern over the shortage of high quality pre-k is clearly something that elected officials and candidates are beginning to notice.  Again, the President called for federal investment in pre-k in the 2014 State of the Union Address.  Similarly, New York Mayor Bill de Balsio rallied voters to his side in part by emphasizing his commitment to pre-k.  According to a new poll commissioned by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly favor increased spending on pre-k, even at the expense of raised taxes.  With every House seat up for election, not to mention many Senate seats in the southeast and a Governor’s race that might hinge on that area; this is the best chance for the Philadelphia area’s children to gain access to high-quality pre-k.

The poll finds that nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians support increasing funding to ensure all children have access to voluntary, high quality pre-k programs, with more than half of voters strongly supporting it.  And they are willing to raise their taxes to do so, by a more than two to one margin. This is not a partisan issue, a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents support expanding access to high-quality pre-k programs.

Voters recognize how important it is for children to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn and are ready to make that knowledge visible on Election Day.  The poll finds that Pennsylvania voters consider education as one of the most important issues for elected officials to focus on, second only to the economy.  Most importantly, more than 40 percent of voters say that are more likely to vote for a candidate who favored increasing funding for pre-k programs, with almost as many saying they are less likely to vote for a candidate who opposed increasing funding.  If our representatives in Harrisburg aren’t willing to do anything about this, then their replacements will be.

This poll is evidence of the wisdom of PCCY’s effort to help form a broad, statewide coalition fighting to make high-quality pre-k a visible issue during this critical election year and beyond.  “When all children arrive ready to learn, they are best able to take advantage of the educational benefits of classroom learning,” said Upper Darby School Superintendent Richard F. Dunlap, Jr., Ed. D., at a recent Pre-K for PA news conference.  “Education investment must start early before the achievement gap is too wide and expensive to overcome.”

The new poll confirms that the risks of under-investing are too dangerous for inaction in Harrisburg to continue.  Along with the poll, evidence of the impact of high quality early learning programs continues to mount.  Last year 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania’s publicly supported pre-k programs achieved dramatic gains in academic and social proficiency.  It is clear that the public support is there, and in an election year, the Legislature is likely to notice.  Pennsylvanians are strong believers that every child benefits when all children enter school readying to learn.  The question is: will candidates and elected officials take notice?