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
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