Northeast Times

The cost of kindergarten

  • Investing in early education: State Rep. Brendan Boyle (above, center) and fellow Democrats heard testimony on the merits of pre-K and kindergarten at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing on April 16 at MaST Charter School in Somerton. JACK FIRNENO / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Investing in early education: State Rep. Brendan Boyle and fellow Democrats heard testimony on the merits of pre-K and kindergarten at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing on April 16 at MaST Charter School in Somerton.

Even if early edu­ca­tion pays, should the state foot the bill? 

Some ex­perts, and some Demo­crats in the Pennsylvania Gen­er­al As­sembly, think so. But, con­cerns about cost and qual­ity are pre­vent­ing oth­er groups, in­clud­ing the gov­ernor’s of­fice, from sign­ing on to the idea. 

At a Demo­crat­ic Policy Com­mit­tee hear­ing on April 16 at MaST Charter School in Somer­ton, Demo­crat­ic party mem­bers heard ex­pert testi­mony on, and dis­cussed the mer­its of, uni­ver­sal pre-K and kinder­garten in Pennsylvania. 

State Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-170th dist.) re­ques­ted the hear­ing in con­junc­tion with his own House Bill 2148. If passed, it would make these early edu­ca­tion pro­grams man­dat­ory for all Pennsylvania chil­dren. 

“The fact that we are one of six states that does not re­quire school dis­tricts to of­fer kinder­garten is shock­ing,” said Boyle. “Study after study shows the best re­turn on in­vest­ment we get on our dol­lars is in early edu­ca­tion.”

That re­turn would come in part from schools spend­ing less money to ad­dress learn­ing dis­orders more in­tensely in later grades than if they were caught earli­er. 

Pan­el­ists also stressed the de­crease in “so­cial costs” later on: money to pay for in­car­cer­a­tion or so­cial ser­vice pro­grams that are used less by people who at­ten­ded pre-school than those who did not. 

In par­tic­u­lar, Shar­on East­er­ling, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Delaware Val­ley As­so­ci­ation for the Edu­ca­tion of Young Chil­dren, ad­dressed the the­ory that the be­ne­fits chil­dren reap from from preschool “fade out” by third or fourth grade. She called this the “primary point of con­ten­tion” against pub­lic fund­ing for such pro­grams. 

Even in stud­ies where chil­dren who didn’t at­tend preschool have sim­il­ar test scores than those who did, she ar­gued, the “preschool chil­dren” had high­er high school and col­lege gradu­ation rates, earn more money and are less likely to be­come teen­age par­ents or in­volved in crime.

“These be­ne­fits have sub­stan­tial eco­nom­ic con­sequences,” she poin­ted out. 

But eco­nom­ics may play a large part in wheth­er uni­ver­sal pre-K and kinder­garten be­come a real­ity in Pennsylvania. 

“The uni­ver­sal preschool solu­tion is more money, staff and time in school, which doesn’t really ad­dress the prob­lems in our pub­lic school sys­tems,” said Nate Be­ne­field, vice pres­id­ent of policy ana­lys­is for the Com­mon­wealth Found­a­tion, a free-mar­ket think tank. “We’re los­ing ground to­ward high school levels. The prob­lem is at that level, not with kids en­ter­ing school not ready.”

In­stead, to fix what he called “sys­tem­ic” prob­lems, school choice and high­er stand­ards and trans­par­ency should be im­ple­men­ted be­fore spend­ing more money. 

“Par­ents should have the choice of the best schools pos­sible, and the fund­ing should fol­low the child,” said Be­ne­field.

The gov­ernor’s of­fice is also con­cerned with the qual­ity of early edu­ca­tion pro­grams, more so than in man­dat­ing them.

“There is evid­ence and re­search that shows pre-K is be­ne­fi­cial. That’s why [Gov. Corbett] is an ar­dent sup­port­er,” said Tim Eller, press sec­ret­ary for the De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion, speak­ing on be­half of the ad­min­is­tra­tion in a phone in­ter­view.

Eller poin­ted to $10.8 mil­lion for early edu­ca­tion in the up­com­ing state budget, and an­oth­er $240 mil­lion that will al­low school dis­tricts to move to full-day kinder­garten if de­sired. 

“School dis­tricts throughout the state have, at a min­im­um, half-day kinder­garten,” he said. And, each dis­trict de­cides what to provide “based on what the com­munity has re­ques­ted.” 

But, he ad­ded, “It’s one thing to say uni­ver­sal. It’s an­oth­er to say high qual­ity.” 

Eller said the ad­min­is­tra­tion would rather see op­tion­al, high-qual­ity pro­grams than sub­stand­ard, man­dated pre-K and kinder­garten classes. You can’t rush in­to something and sac­ri­fice qual­ity. If the money’s not used cor­rectly, the child’s not go­ing to have any be­ne­fit. It’s not go­ing to show re­turn on in­vest­ment.” 

However, Boyle said he’s real­ist­ic about how quickly early edu­ca­tion pro­grams can be­come re­quire­ments in Pennsylvania. He called the bill “the be­gin­ning of the pro­cess” of get­ting uni­ver­sal pre-K and kinder­garten man­dated in the state. “It’s at least a foot in the door,” he noted. 

And, Boyle said any ex­tra funds al­loc­ated to early edu­ca­tion could be­gin to pay off in as little as five or six years, as the first wave of early edu­ca­tion stu­dents re­quire less in­ter­ven­tion in later ele­ment­ary grades. 

Based on data from oth­ers states, he said, “The re­turn on in­vest­ment is over­whelm­ing.” ••

AT THE HEAR­ING:

Demo­crat­ic State Rep­res­ent­at­ives: 

Mike Sturla, Chair­man, Demo­crat­ic Policy Com­mit­tee

Brendan Boyle, Hear­ing Co-Chair­man

Paul Costa, Chris Sainato, Kev­in Boyle, 

Mark Longi­etti, Jaret Gib­bons, Joseph Petrarca 

Pan­el­ists:

Shar­on East­er­ling Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or of the Delaware Val­ley As­so­ci­ation for the Edu­ca­tion of Young Chil­dren

Ad­ele Robin­son, Deputy Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or of the Delaware Val­ley As­so­ci­ation for the Edu­ca­tion of Young Chil­dren

Ron Cow­ell, Pres­id­ent of the Edu­ca­tion Policy and Lead­er­ship Cen­ter,

Domin­ic Gullo, Ph.D., Drexel Uni­versity As­so­ci­ate Dean of Re­search and Pro­fess­or

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