Education is a major issue in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign. Understandably, the discussion has centered on funding and spending. But once we get over the political palaver, the next governor must decide how best to spend whatever money is available.
I have a suggestion: early education.
Let's first dispense with the funding and spending debate. Politicians refuse to accept a simple but basic aspect of public financial management: Once revenue enters the state's coffers, its origin becomes irrelevant.
This concept, called fungibility, means that since money is money, it can be used any way the government decides.
Consider the debate over who was at fault for the billion-dollar Pennsylvania Education Department funding cut in Gov. Corbett's first budget. The decline in spending was not due to the end of the federal government's stimulus program. Pennsylvania politicians made the decision to reduce education funding.
Once the stimulus funds ran out, the remaining revenues could still be spent in any way the governor and the legislature decided. Education funding could have been maintained or even increased, but less moneys would have been available for other programs. The decision was made to cut education spending.
Similarly, it cannot be stated that all proceeds from a potential extraction tax on Marcellus Shale drilling will go into education. State revenues will increase, creating the opportunity to expand education funding. But since an extraction tax would likely be general revenue, it is fungible. Even if it is earmarked for education, the new revenues can be used for other purposes. The governor and legislature must still agree to increase education spending.
If Pennsylvania's revenues do increase, regardless of the sources, and if the governor and legislature decide to increase education spending, where should the money go?
Rarely is there agreement over where educational dollars should be spent, and even when there is, the ideas don't often turn out to be brilliant. Remember "New Math," pods not hallways, middle schools not junior high schools, or "No Child Left Behind"? The debate rages on about whether charter schools produce better results or if generalized testing does much.
These ideas sounded great, but that doesn't mean they have or will improve outcomes.
One place where there is both agreement and results is in early education, an issue with which I have been involved through my membership on the board of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. ELGP has taken a leadership role in Pre-K for PA, a nonpartisan "issue campaign" that doesn't support or oppose candidates. Its only goal is making sure "that every 3- and 4-year-old in Pennsylvania will have access to high-quality" early education programs.
The materials Pre-K for PA has gathered are compelling. Research has determined that by age 5, 90 percent of a child's brain is developed. If children are to reach their potential, education and training must start very early in life.
Early educational programs help students improve their literacy, math, and social skills before they enter kindergarten. The longer you wait to start the learning process, the greater the education gap between the haves and have-nots, and the cost of narrowing that differential skyrockets.
The benefits build as the child grows. High-quality early-education programs lead to fewer students requiring special education programs, reduce grade repetition, and increase the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment. This adds up to lower costs and greater returns from our education spending.
Even if the estimates of a return of $7 for every $1 spent is wildly overestimated, the benefits are great.
So, what is the state of early education in Pennsylvania? Right now, it doesn't stack up. A May 2014 U.S. Department of Education report determined that in the 40 states that had state-funded early-education programs, on average, 30 percent of the 4-year-olds were served. In Pennsylvania, that percentage was only 12.1 percent during the 2012-13 school year, down from 14 percent in the previous school year. In contrast, New Jersey serves about 28 percent of the 4-year-olds.
On the spending front, preschool spending in Pennsylvania rose about 8 percent in the current budget, the first increase since 2008-09. But that only recouped the cuts in the 2012-13 budget, which led to the number of students served declining by 11 percent.
Pennsylvania spends more per student than the national average, but less than half of what New Jersey spends.
Clearly, more needs to be done. Once the election is over, hopefully, the discussion will shift to how to spend the available education funds. If there are additional moneys available, priority should be given to increasing the number of children receiving high-quality preschool educational programs.