The best way to guarantee a child receives a successful education is with a strong start. The best way to ensure every child gets that strong start is by funding high-quality Pre-K programs. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s Pre-K funding covers fewer than 20 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds who need it. Luckily, the state has announced $10 million in expanded funding, but there’s a catch: don’t expect to see much of a difference in Philadelphia. Districts can only apply for up to 80 new seats with the Pre-K Counts expansion. This is fine for places like Forest and Cameron Counties, where there aren’t more than 80 3- and 4-year-olds in the entire county. But it does little to help Philadelphia’s 39,000 eligible kids.
PCCY’s analysis found that more than 13% of Pennsylvania’s 3- and 4-year-olds live in Philadelphia—that’s more than one out of every eight kids statewide! So why is the School District of Philadelphia capped at the same 80 slots as smaller, richer school districts whose children the state Department of Education admits are at “low risk” without additional early childhood education programming? The state recognizes Philadelphia as the second most at-risk county, so why limit the District to new seats for only 2% of its Pre-K-aged children?
The application process is not limited to school districts, so hypothetically other qualified providers can apply for seats in Philadelphia. But it is unknown how many other qualified Pre-K providers applied, and the state has resisted releasing the list of applicants. Groups were only given one week after the announcement to request funds from the Department of Education. Licensed nursery schools and child care centers, while eligible for funding, often do not have in-house grant writers and may not have been able to apply in time if they did not receive the state’s email right away. Also, because of Philadelphia’s unique service delivery model, most Pre-K Counts providers don’t want their own grant. The school district has held the sole grant and subcontracts with community partners at nearly 50 sites throughout the city, a model most partners are quite happy to stick with.
Since it was created, the Pre-K Counts program has respected and prioritized these partnerships between school districts and high-quality, community-based Pre-K providers. The state is aware of this and has heard complaints that last year, when the program was expanded by 5% and only new grantees were awarded new seats, Philadelphia got zero increased dollars and no additional seats. This is the second year that the state’s approach to expanding Pre-K Counts punishes Philadelphia for its model and disrespects the established policy of local control.
If the state wanted to help those who need it most, why a low, arbitrary cap instead of a need based, per capita system? Because the legislature is not interested in helping those who need it most—they are interested in helping those who vote for them. Key legislators have openly said that they have no interest in helping Philadelphia students without giving the same funding to other districts, regardless of the urgent need here. The 80 seat cap will allow legislators statewide to go back to their districts on election day and say “look what I did for our children.” What they won’t be able to say is, “look how I helped those struggling the most.”
In the coming days, the Department of Education will award the Pre-K Counts expansion slots, doling out the $10 million across the state. The School District of Philadelphia, despite its great need, will receive no more than 80 new seats. With no formula in place, funding will never go where it is needed most. The state rightfully claims that the expansion “can open the doors of opportunity for every child to do well in school, in the workforce, and in life.” But it won’t be opening very many doors in Philadelphia.