By Elliot Weinbaum
and Sharon Easterling
In Philadelphia, many are working hard to improve our schools. There is significant work to be done if we are to give our young people the best possible opportunity to become active and successful citizens, and we need to begin with our youngest learners.
Consider a few important facts. According to the Reinvestment Fund's childcaremap.org, only 15 percent of about 100,000 child-care seats in Philadelphia are rated as being high-quality, with three or four stars, according to the state's Keystone Stars rating system. Of the remainder, more than half do not participate in the state's certification or rating systems, and more than 30 percent are at the lower quality ratings.
If we look at individual neighborhoods, the landscape can be even bleaker. Childcaremap.org shows that several neighborhoods, some serving more than 1,000 children under the age of 5, have no child-care centers with a rating of three or four stars. In a city with the highest poverty rates among large American cities, less than one-third of our 3- and 4-year-olds have access to publicly funded, high-quality pre-K.
Why should we care? Because we know that early-education opportunities help people live better lives. Studies such as those by the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman indicate that children who miss out on early education often struggle to catch up to the academic, professional, and personal success experienced by their peers. The work of Harvard education professor David Deming has shown that children in an early-childhood program are less likely to demonstrate learning disabilities later in life, more likely to graduate from high school, and less likely to be in poor health as adults.
What does this mean for Philadelphia? There are about 12,000 kindergartners in our city. The overall rate of special education in Philadelphia would suggest that almost 14 percent of these students will need special-education services. An evaluation by Pre-K Counts, a statewide program, suggests that if every child had access to high-quality early education, the special-education rate would be reduced to less than 5 percent.
With the potential savings from a reduction in special-education rates, getting all children into pre-K would cost the city $30 million to $45 million more per year. But every dollar spent on pre-K returns about $7 in later savings and benefits. While $30 million is certainly a lot of money, Philadelphia spends nearly 10 times this amount to operate our prisons every year. The Perry Preschool study showed that students who received early education were half as likely to be arrested by the age of 27, so perhaps a preschool investment would allow us to reduce our investment in prisons.
The benefits of expanding early-childhood education are undeniable, not just to our bottom line but to the lives of our children. Many organizations work tirelessly to move us one step closer to the day when all children have access to affordable pre-K, including the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, the Southeast Regional Key, and the Pre-K for PA campaign.
Although good work is being done, all of us - funders, advocates, citizens, and assistance organizations - must work together and push further to create the educational system we so clearly need. So let's recommit to work together on behalf of our youngest children by investing our time and resources in improving access to early-childhood education.