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While President Obama and congressional leaders work to hammer out future spending plans, we cannot lose sight of what is needed to strengthen America’s work force and get Pennsylvania’s economy growing again. Though early learning advocates (including my organization, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children) have been saying for years that investing in early childhood education is a fiscally responsible way to reduce deficits and generate long-term gains for children and taxpayers, it bears repeating.

According to research by Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman, investing in early childhood education is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve education, health and economic outcomes for participants, as well as to lower the costs to society of people dependent on social programs. Over a lifetime, children who are exposed to high-quality early learning will be healthier, more self-sufficient and less likely to enter the criminal justice system. They’re more likely to stay in school and graduate and less likely to become teen parents. Those real cost savings add up to as much as a 10 percent annual economic return for communities.

Brain development occurs more rapidly in the first five years of life than at any other time. What young children experience – or don’t experience – during this critical period will forever affect their emotional, cognitive and behavioral development. Just as a building needs a strong foundation, so, too, does a child. But in Luzerne County, only 18 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attend high-quality publicly funded pre-kindergarten.

I urge U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and President Obama to make early learning a priority in the 2012 federal budget – with targeted investments in Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Luzerne County’s most vulnerable children and families depend on these investments now, and the future of Pennsylvania’s economy depends on it, too.

  • Head Start. A $526 million increase is necessary over the next fiscal year to sustain early learning opportunities for children in Head Start and Early Head Start. Nearly 5,000 children are enrolled in these programs in Pennsylvania.
  • Child Care and Development Block Grant. In fiscal year 2011, critical services were stripped away from families at a time of increased poverty. Congress must increase the block grant program by $1.2 billion over 2011 levels to restore child-care services for approximately 220,000 children, including more than 8,100 children in Pennsylvania. The recently passed state budget not only cut nearly $40 million from child care, which will have a grave impact on child-care subsidy, but also gave the secretary for the Department of Public Welfare the discretion to modify eligibility and increase co-pays for child care. More than 8,600 children are on the waiting list in Pennsylvania for child care subsidy.
  • Effective early learning with competitive state grants. Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children thanks Congress for supporting the “Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge,” which will help winning states that choose to participate align standards, enhance the quality of and better coordinate early learning programs.

Lawmakers must make investments in early learning a key priority in the upcoming year. Failing to increase funding would have a negative impact on Luzerne County children and economic growth across Pennsylvania.

Joan L Benso

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