HARRISBURG Early-education money looks tight for Rendell

A recent study showed that 80 percent of preschool programs are not providing children an education that will prepare them for school.
HARRISBURG (AP) -- As Gov.-elect Ed Rendell assumes leadership of Pennsylvania, his education agenda will seek to embrace the state's youngest children by boosting early childhood education programs.
Educators and advocacy groups say such attention is long overdue. A raft of reports released in recent months bolsters their view that there is a dearth of high-quality preschool programs, particularly for children from low-income families.
Even before he won the Nov. 5 gubernatorial election, however, Rendell said he would likely have to delay a $100 million-plus initiative that includes expanding preschool programs for at-risk children until the state's budget problems subside.
Rendell has a transition committee examining the issue, but it remains to be seen how much headway he will make on improving preschool programs in his first year, according to spokesman Ken Snyder.
"The developing, looming fiscal crisis is a reality, but we're going to have to work creatively and imaginatively with legislative leaders to solve that and other pressing issues. I will say that it won't be long before the new governor's vision for early childhood education is apparent," Snyder said.
Gov. Mark S. Schweiker has provided Rendell with a possible policy blueprint in the form of a report released in October by an early childhood education task force.
The report calls for: high-quality preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, with priority given to children from low-income families; making kindergarten available to 5-year-olds, and full-day kindergarten available to districts most likely to benefit from it; and, asking the state Legislature to lower the minimum compulsory school age from 8 years old to 6 years old.
Last month, researchers from Temple, Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh said a six-month study determined that 80 percent of the preschool programs are not providing children the kind of high-quality education that will prepare them for school.
The study also found that salaries for early childhood educators average about $17,500, or about half of the salary for a public-school kindergarten teacher.
Sheri Prince, director of a Harrisburg-area Head Start center, has seen firsthand the challenges of meeting a high demand for early childhood education among families who are least able to afford it and seek out the federally funded program.
No state money
Fifty-one children attend the site's half-day preschool programs, and Prince estimates there are 45 to 60 others who are on waiting lists. Pennsylvania is one of nine states that does not pay for its own early childhood programs or spend state money on Head Start.
"Certainly if the state would kick in some money for Head Start, we would be able to serve more children. There are lots of kids out there that are in substandard care," Prince said.
Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group that has persistently pushed the state to devote money to early childhood programs, is optimistic that Rendell will make an effort to do so. But the size of the investment will depend on whether he can persuade lawmakers to either raise taxes or generate new revenue through initiatives such as gambling expansion.
"The truth of the matter is we're going to have a very tight budget year, and I think that until the governor-elect is sworn in and we see how things are, we don't quite know how he intends to manage that," said Joan Benso, the organization's executive director. "If he tries to use revenues that are already present and sort it out without doing gaming or taxes, the best we could hope for is a small investment."

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