Testimony Provided to City Council Establishing an Independent Commission on Universal Pre-Kindergarten
My name is Steve Wray, and I am the Executive Director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. We are a 105-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to making Greater Philadelphia a world-class region. The Economy League provides independent, high-quality analysis and insight and develops practical strategies that can be put into action. Through our World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative, we have worked with business and civic leaders to develop and pursue a shared regional agenda focused on three broad areas - business growth, infrastructure, and education and talent development.
It might come as a surprise that early education and pre-kindergarten is one of the first topics we began working on as part of a broad regional improvement effort, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The persistent educational achievement gap in Greater Philadelphia represents a major obstacle to growth and opportunity in this region. For decades we’ve tried to get a handle on this through efforts to increase test scores, high school graduation rates, and college attainment rates. And while these are all very important, we know that the achievement gap starts before children even enter kindergarten. In fact, recent studies have found vocabulary differences between poor and higher-income children as young as 18 months. These gaps often persist as children start school, and too frequently, those who are behind don’t catch up, and the dominoes begin to fall. Kindergarten readiness is a strong predictor of third-grade reading scores, which strongly correlates with a child's likelihood of graduating from high school.
Addressing disparities early is not only highly effective in helping individual children be successful in school and beyond, it’s highly efficient, saving taxpayers money in the long run. This is why the Economy League is a founding member of the Pre-K for PA campaign, which is working to make high-quality pre-k accessible to all three- and four-year-olds in the commonwealth. And it’s why business leaders, school district superintendents, law enforcement officials, and military leaders are part of expansion efforts as well.
Business leaders understand that high-quality pre-k is the first, crucial step in building a strong, educated workforce, and a public investment with quantifiable, reliable returns. Superintendents understand that pre-k saves K-12 school systems money through reduced need for special education services, reduced grade repetition, and better performance and fewer behavioral problems in school. And law enforcement officials in this city and around the country strongly support increasing access because they’ve seen the proof that it leads to less abuse and neglect, fewer high school drop-outs and, ultimately, fewer crimes committed and less involvement with the criminal justice system.
While pre-k contributes to a strong workforce and helps avoid costs in our public school, criminal justice, and public welfare systems, expanding pre-k would also have an immediate positive economic impact on the city and region. Investments in quality early learning generate more new spending for local businesses than investments in other major economic sectors including manufacturing and retail and wholesale trade. For every $1 invested, an additional 79 cents are generated. And nearly all of these dollars generated would stay in the area – helping local businesses prosper and creating new jobs.
Currently, just 34 percent – or about 13,000 three- and four-year-olds – are enrolled in high-quality pre-k in the City of Philadelphia, which means nearly 26,000 children are not enrolled. In broad terms, two primary obstacles stand between these children and high-quality early education: a shortage of programs and a steep price tag.
One of the driving forces behind our World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative is the idea that this region can’t wait for the state or the federal government to lead on issues that are crucial to the health of our economy and the success of our region. Pre-k is one such issue. There are promising signs that policy makers at the federal and state levels understand the importance of early education, and the Economy League and our partners in the Pre-K for PA campaign will continue to work with the gubernatorial administration and the legislature in Harrisburg to expand access to high-quality state pre-k programs. However, we would encourage the City of Philadelphia to follow the lead of a number of our competitor cities and regions and consider steps that it might take to address the shortage of good programs and lack of affordability of high-quality early learning in the city.
In Denver, for example, their public program provides income-based tuition support for pre-k, and has allowed 70 percent of four-year-olds in the city to enroll in pre-k. Research on the Denver program shows that children who participate are better-prepared for kindergarten and outperform their peers who did not participate on third-grade reading assessments. In other words, the program is having lasting impacts for individual children and schools. In Boston, the new mayor has created an advisory committee to figure out how to double the number of children served in their universal pre-k program by 2018. These public pre-k programs are long-term investments that will have an impact on these cities and regions for years to come. If Philadelphia is to successfully compete with Boston, Denver, New York, Seattle, and other cities around the US that are expanding early learning access, the City should play a leading role in increasing access to high-quality pre-k.
Thank you for your time.
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