Last May, Governor Tom Wolf held a news conference in front of the Camp Hill state prison in Cumberland County.
He was joined by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and a handful of district attorneys, all pushing for a $120 million funding increase — not for prisons — but for preschool.
“These are the first steps to what I have as a four-year goal to fully fund early childhood education,” Wolf said.
The press conference was timed not only to coincide with that year’s budget negotiations, but also with the release of a report from the nonprofit advocacy group Fight Crime Invest In Kids.
The report presented data from across the country to make the case that putting more kids in pre-K now would mean fewer adults in prison later.
“Pre-K sets kids up to be at level by grade 3,” Wetzel said. “Those who aren’t reading at level by grade 3 are more likely to drop out. Those who are more likely to drop out are more likely to be incarcerated. So that’s kind of a cascade effect.”
But that budget never passed. The partial budget Wolf signed in December increased pre-K funding by about $30 million.
Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, said the children whose names rest on stalled waiting lists will never get those valuable developmental months and years back.
“Ninety percent of your brain is developed by the time you’re 5 years old,” she said. “So it sort of lays the foundation for the rest of your life."
For many families, there aren’t enough pre-K slots in their communities, and they can't afford to look into private education. Because access to high quality early learning experiences is so dependent on income, Ciminillo said it can exacerbate disparities created by economic inequality.
It’s an issue on the minds of educators and parents alike. At a December meeting of Pittsburgh City Council, the (later successful) bill to create the Office of Early Childhood drew nearly an hour of public comment.
Jessica Conway of Squirrel Hill spoke at the meeting. As an early childhood educator and mom to two young boys, she told council menters she's not sure she can afford to work to anymore.
“At our center, I think if I were not able to return to work, I would be the third teacher in three years who was not able to return to work because of the advent of a second child,” she said. “You would essentially be giving back your entire paycheck in order to be able to go to work 40 hours a week.”
Conway makes about $29,000 a year, and since her husband is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Pittsburgh, she is the breadwinner in the family. After paying tuition for both her sons, even with her employee discount, she would end up with about $50 extra a week.
“I really think that that's a shame, and I think that across the country we're probably losing a lot of really good, really dedicated teachers in the early childhood teaching field … because they wanted to have their own children,” she said. “That just does not compute for me.”
For other families, paying for childcare is just one issue.
Aseia Glover laughs as she lists off the fast food and fast casual restaurants she’s worked at: Wendy’s, Arby’s, Burger King, Panera Bread and others.
“I’ve worked everywhere,” she said, usually for minimum wage.
Glover’s daughter Sonja is 18 months old, and she is 9 months pregnant with her second baby girl.
She said working in food service sometimes means early morning shifts and catching the bus at 4 a.m. At her last job, she would take Sonja to a relative’s house the night before.
“(I would) drop her off around 9 or 10 at night, go get her at 5 in the evening, and then only get to spend like four hours with my daughter. And then I’ve got to take her back to the babysitter,” she said. “Most of the time she’ll cry, and I’m like, ‘Aww baby, I’m not abandoning you. I’ve got to make a living.’”
As a low-wage worker, Glover does qualify for the state’s childcare subsidy program, but she said even with the subsidy she would still have to pay $100 a week, about half of her take-home pay.
So instead, she cobbles together care. Sonja’s dad watches her when he’s not at work. Glover’s grandmother and brother pitch in, too. But she worries that Sonja is not getting the kind of education and socialization opportunities that will help her be successful in school and later in life.
“I think about it every day,” Glover said. "That’s why each and every day I fight harder and harder and harder, and it seems like I’m getting somewhere, but it’s just hard.”
At the YWCA Homewood-Brushton Child Development and Education Center, the majority of kids come from low-income families that receive some sort of tuition assistance.
“Without the support of programs such as our childcare subsidy, that our parents would not have the ability to work and/or attend school,” said Monique McIntosh is Chief Administrative Officer of the YWCA of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
The facility serves about 60 children, ranging from a few months old to 5 years. According to the state rating system, it’s the highest ranked early childhood center in the economically depressed neighborhood.
“If we look at the Homewood-Brushton community, look at the local high school and middle school, unfortunately the students are performing below basic on standardized exams,” McIntosh said. “By providing the quality early learning programming at the Homewood-Brushton center, we’re now sending students into the local elementary school prepared and ready for kindergarten and ready to learn, so we’re setting a foundation.”
McIntosh made the same argument that Wolf made at that press conference outside the prison last year: investing in early childhood education now will save money later.
That methodology bears out nationally. In a 2014 report, the Obama administration estimated that there’s an $8.16 return for every $1 invested in pre-K. But the long-term payoff has been a hard sell in Harrisburg.
“I’m working on a city level because we can’t sit and wait around for Harrisburg and Washington to act,” Pittsburgh Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said. “That being said, we need Washington and Harrisburg to act and to work as partners with cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and all of those in between to make sure that we get our kids on the right track.”
The goal right now, said Rudiak, is to get every 3 and 4 year old in Pittsburgh into an affordable, high-quality preschool program. The city has established a $250,000 loan and grant program for early childhood enters and will soon start searching for an Early Childhood Manager to administer the program and run the office.
“Thousands of children are placed on waiting lists each year in Pennsylvania because their families can’t afford a high quality pre-K program,” she said. “That’s unjust and unacceptable.”