By Madeleine Dean

When Gov. Wolf delivered his first budget address this month to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate, he made his highest priority clear: investing in public education.

"We are starting with education," he said, "because, in many ways, education is at the core of everything else that we want to achieve."

The governor also made clear that early-childhood education is the essential starting point for building a quality education. Wolf plans to expand access to early education by increasing the number of children in prekindergarten by 75 percent as part of a larger strategy to move Pennsylvania toward pre-K for all 3- and 4-year olds.

How we budget and how we choose to spend our money show our priorities. Right now, Pennsylvania ranks 41st nationally in early education, a direct reflection of our investment priorities.

Now is the time to change that.

The benefits of pre-K are immense. By age 5, a child's brain is 90 percent developed, making the early years crucial for cognitive, social, and behavioral development. Children with access to quality pre-K enter kindergarten with better reading, language, math, and social skills, and are more likely to stay ahead in the years to come. Conversely, early education also dramatically decreases the need for costly remedial and special education.

Investing in pre-K makes fiscal sense. For every $1 spent on early education, Pennsylvania saves an additional $7 in special-education, public-welfare, unemployment, and prison costs. Additionally, a 3- or 4-year-old with a solid base in early education is more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn a higher salary, ultimately bringing in additional tax revenue for the state.

Despite the definite benefits to the commonwealth and our children, Pennsylvania is falling behind. Sadly, fewer than half of Pennsylvania's nearly 300,000 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool - with children from low-income families 20 percent less likely to be enrolled than their peers.

Pennsylvania's failure to adequately and excellently educate our youngest students has the largest impact on children from low-income families. A Stanford University study found that by age 18 months, language skills for children from low-income families can be several months behind their peers', with the gap widening up to two years by age 5.

To see the benefits of providing targeted pre-K, Pennsylvanians need only look to New Jersey.

In 1999, New Jersey began providing universal pre-K for its 31 highest-poverty districts, in keeping with the state Supreme Court case Abbott v. Burke. In that case, it was determined that limited access to early education was denying low-income children their right to a "thorough and efficient" education under the state's constitution.

Since the ruling, thanks to increased state investment, students in Abbott districts have made measurable strides in language, literacy, and math skills, significantly narrowing statewide educational gaps. New Jersey's dedication to providing quality pre-K has benefited its children with meaningful results and can be an example for Pennsylvania.

Wolf's proposal would increase early-education funding in the commonwealth by $120 million, including a $100 million investment in Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts and $20 million for Head Start Supplemental Assistance.

Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs offer high-quality education to children of low-income families and have been shown to improve students' performance throughout their academic careers. Despite the programs' successes, 70 percent of eligible children cannot attend due to lack of funding. The governor's plan would expand access to more than 14,000 children.

I support Wolf's proposal because every child should have the opportunity of a solid educational foundation. In addition, the governor's budget represents a serious reinvestment in our schools, increasing Pennsylvania's share of public education costs from 35 percent - a historic low - to 50 percent, our fair share.

Education is an investment that impacts all Pennsylvanians, and it is the best tool we have to move our economy forward. The state shares in the benefits of education, and Pennsylvanians should fairly shoulder their part of the cost.

As the governor points out with clarity and simplicity: Education is at the core of everything else we want to achieve. Let's start at the beginning and invest more in quality pre-K for all our 3- and 4-year olds; that will make all the difference.

State Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Montgomery) represents the 153d District. mdean@pahouse.net