ROCKY WATERS FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION
The political waters in Harrisburg over the budget are rockier than wave surfing on the Jersey shore. But some sectors are experiencing a hardcore wipeout.
Fortunately, families receiving the child care subsidy are able to keep their heads (just) above water through the budget impasse. The state government will continue to fund child care subsidy payments so parents and providers won’t take a hit. Plus, the child care subsidy was the only early learning program to get any additional funds – $100 million – to fill the loss of federal dollars.
However, providers who serve children through the state’s publicly funded pre-k and Head Start programs are not protected from the crashing waves. The state will suspend those payments, forcing these small business owners with already razor-thin budget margins to take out loans to keep them afloat. And with today’s exorbitant interest rates, many providers will be financially underwater quickly. This could have dire consequences for children.
On top of it all, the legislature turned its back on the early education crisis. For the first time in a decade, no new funds were added to the state budget to expand access to pre-k. None. Zilch. Zero. Policymakers ignored calls from chambers of commerce, working parents, child care providers, military leaders, and others to stabilize the sector by investing in early educator wages.
So, the legislature – sitting on $13 billion in reserves – decided not to assist providers in recruiting and retaining teachers. With billions of dollars languishing in state coffers, it’s both tragic and shortsighted not to invest in our youngest children.
This means that 87,288 eligible children will continue to miss out on their one chance at early learning.
Pennsylvanians support public investment in high-quality pre-k – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents…rural, urban, and suburban. In fact, a statewide poll earlier this year showed that 98% of PA voters believe that early learning is important, and 78% of PA voters support increasing state funding to serve more eligible children in pre-k programs.
There is a light in the storm, but it’s too soon to know if it’s a lighthouse or a speedboat barreling toward us. House and Senate Republicans have signaled their interest in going back to the state budget drawing board over Governor Shapiro’s pledge to line-item veto private school vouchers. “If they pull out our priorities … you’re going to see a very slimmed-down, scaled-back budget, because there were things in this budget that we really didn’t want to do,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland County).
Ideally, the General Assembly will reconvene in the fall and, in a bipartisan fashion, pass the budget and other procedural bills. If they choose to upend the whole process, could there be an opportunity to boost early learning dollars? Or will we need to mobilize against cuts? We’ll see but we’ll need to work hard together regardless. So come back from your summer vacation reinvigorated to fight for early education!