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High-quality early learning programs have a social and economic return on investment that goes far beyond a child's first years. More aggressive investments in our youngest learners must be made - and sustained - if we are to reap the full benefits that we know high-quality early learning programs can provide to children, communities and the commonwealth. This requires a commitment at the state and federal levels to make early learning initiatives a priority.
To create a competitive, world-class workforce, Pennsylvania needs to invest in our youngest learners by providing high-quality early learning opportunities. An increasing body of research shows investing in these programs prepares children for school success, boosts the economy and saves commonwealth funds in the long-term by reducing the need for special and remedial education. High-quality early learning also decreases dropout rates, crime and incarceration and increases the likelihood of graduation and college enrollment. There is an opportunity to make a groundbreaking investment in high-quality early learning programs through a state/federal partnership.
High-quality early learning programs prepare children for school success. Yet in Pennsylvania, far too many at-risk children lack the opportunity to attend these programs. The commonwealth has lagged in making appropriate investments in early learning and the number of children served has remained stagnant. We need a partnership between the state and federal governments to begin making meaningful progress toward providing all at-risk children these opportunities.
The president's plan to expand early learning opportunities includes some long-term investments to promote quality and expand access. Here are just 10 reasons to back the proposal.
Stagnant Opportunity Hurts Our Youngest Learners
Over the past year, Pennsylvania's efforts to prepare our youngest learners for a lifetime of academic achievement and success have looked much like the economy that impacts them: positive change has been slow and, at times, immeasurable.
Rising STARS is an initiative within the Keystone STARS program designed to ensure more at-risk children enrolled in Child Care Works have access to the highest quality child care providers. While Keystone STARS has increased child care program quality in the commonwealth, at-risk children’s access to the highest quality programs continues to be limited.
The need for high-quality child care
Child care helps parents work, which helps our economy. With more than 65 percent of parents working outside the home, safe, reliable child care enables parents to gain and sustain employment. However, child care is expensive, consuming up to one-third of the median wages for a family of four. Child care subsidies make quality child care more affordable, support the healthy development of children and help low-income parents access the child care they need to go to work or to school to support their families.
If Pennsylvania wants to create a competitive, world-class workforce in the midst of a challenging fiscal environment, we must invest in our youngest learners by providing high-quality early learning opportunities. Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, Head Start and public school pre-kindergarten are among the best investments we can make in children’s education. High-quality early learning is especially beneficial to children whose educational opportunities are hindered by poverty or other circumstances. When at-risk children benefit from early learning investments like Pre-K Counts or the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program (which supplements federal Head Start funding), they enter K-12 better prepared and less likely to struggle to keep pace with their peers. To best serve Pennsylvania’s children and taxpayers, state funding for Pre-K Counts and HSSAP is needed to ensure our investments help the most children and reap the greatest economic returns.
Early Childhood Supports are Vital in Difficult Economy
Pennsylvania's economy continues to struggle, and its children and families continue to feel the strain. More than 40 percent of Pennsylvania children under age 5 are living in low-income households, one in 20 children under 5 still lacks health insurance and many families that have survived the recession are still working to make up lost ground financially.
Despite the challenges, there are bright spots. Pennsylvania continues to make progress in several notable areas of child well-being. The number of children in foster care is on the decline, fewer newborns face the health risks associated with low birth weight and access to high-quality child care is on the upswing. Pennsylvania's challenge now is to continue our momentum rather than let our progress slow — or regress — under the burdensome weight of a sluggish economy.
Hard Times Persist for our Youngest Children
As our state and nation stumble along the path to economic recovery, our youngest children and their families are experiencing more than a few bumps in the road. The demand for supports to help parents make ends meet and address the comprehensive needs of their children are unparalleled in recent times. But shrinking state and federal coffers have fallen short to meet growing demand.
Gains & Losses Equal Mixed Results
This year’s School Readiness report displays interesting dynamics: growth in both full-day kindergarten and pre-K indicates promising headway in making these proven programs available to children, yet at the same time greater reliance on public programs including child care subsidy and health coverage points to an escalation of families turning to the government for help in these lean economic times.
Making Good Use of Public Funds
Pennsylvania children continue to benefit from an aggressive state investment strategy in school readiness. Pre-K Counts was enacted into law in July 2007 with funding for nearly 11,000 children. More than 58,000 three- and four-year olds attended high quality pre-K programs this past school year funded by Pre-K Counts, Head Start and basic education funding. The recently enacted state budget included funding for another 800 children in pre-K. Now, more Pennsylvania children than ever before are starting kindergarten ready to learn.