• Jennifer Egmont
Categorized As:
Education & Talent

Giving More Kids Access to High-Quality Early Education

Persistent disparities in educational achievement represent a major obstacle to growth and opportunity in Greater Philadelphia. This achievement gap starts long before children enter kindergarten.

In fact, recent studies have found vocabulary differences between poor and higher-income children as young as 18 months and disparities in cognitive functioning as early as 9 months.


These gaps often remain as children start school, with many children in low-income families as far as twenty months behind their better-off peers when they enter kindergarten. Regrettably, these children often 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. 


An extensive body of research has shown that one of the most effective ways of closing this gap is access to early education and childcare that is high quality – meaning programs that have well-trained staff, comprehensive curricula, and low staff-to-child ratios, among other important assets.


In broad terms, two primary obstacles stand between many young children in our region and high-quality early education: a shortage of programs and a steep price tag. While there are efforts to address these issues, significant challenges remain. 


Efforts to Improve Early Childhood Education


Early education is a continuum beginning at birth; however, most states, including those in Greater Philadelphia, make a distinction between childcare (which serves children from birth through grade school) and pre-k programs (which serve three-and four-year-olds). 


Since 2002, Pennsylvania has had Keystone STARS, a voluntary quality-rating system for childcare providers designed to help parents make choices about where to send their kids and to help programs improve through technical assistance and other resources. Programs earn a rating from one to four stars; STAR three and four programs considered high quality.


While efforts to improve program quality have yielded dividends in recent years, access to high-quality care is not nearly where it needs to be. Just over half of all regulated childcare providers in the region participate in the STARS program. And between 2009 and 2012, the share actually decreased by one percent – from 54% in 2009 to 53% in 2012. The share of high-quality programs did increase slightly, from 8% in 2009 to 11% in 2012. 


A number of efforts are underway to move these numbers in the right direction. United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey's Success by Six program helps centers in southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey improve the quality of education they provide and helps parents understand their role as their child’s first teacher. In Philadelphia, The Reinvestment Fund and Public Health Management Corporation have partnered with support from the William Penn Foundation to establish the Fund for Quality. The Fund helps existing high-quality providers expand to serve more children, with a particular focus on under-served neighborhoods in the city.


In the rest of the region, data on the quality and accessibility of childcare varies. New Jersey does not currently have a state quality rating system for childcare providers but is in the process of developing one. Once implemented, it will both provide parents with better information for choosing childcare and offer policymakers and stakeholders a clear picture of the quality of care available across the state. 


Beyond a shortage of good programs, there is a significant cost barrier for many families. The average annual cost of care for two children (one infant, one preschooler) in Greater Philadelphia is nearly $22,000. This is about 25 percent of median household income in the region. States do provide assistance to help low-income working families pay for childcare, but wait times for subsidized care can be significant. Across the five Pennsylvania counties, the wait is 6-7 months. 


The State of Public Pre-K


Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have state-funded high-quality pre-k programs for low- and moderate-income children, though eligibility criteria vary by state. These state programs are offered in addition to federally funded Head Start, which serves children in families below the poverty line ($23,850 for a family of four). 


Delaware’s state program uses income guidelines similar to those of federal Head Start, meaning that only very low-income children are served. In New Castle County, the state program serves an impressive 80 percent of income-eligible children. However, there are more than 5,200 children in low- and moderate-income families who aren’t eligible yet struggle to afford high-quality programs.


New Jersey is unique among states with regard to public pre-k, due in large part to a series of rulings coming out of the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit. These rulings have had a significant impact on education policy and funding in New Jersey, including a requirement that the state provide pre-k in low-income school districts.  Currently, nearly 9,500 children in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Mercer, and Salem counties are enrolled in public pre-k, representing 48.1% of children in low- and moderate-income families. 


Percentage of 3- and 4-Year-Olds Below 300% of Poverty Enrolled in Publicly Funded Pre-K by State*


New Jersey has invested significant funding in its program, ranking first among states in per-student spending at $12,070. Fortunately, this investment is paying off. An ongoing, multi-year study of children who attended “former Abbott district" programs, as they are known, found that participants made significant academic gains that have persisted through 5th grade.


Pennsylvania provides funding to supplement federal Head Start and serves very low-income children through its Head Start State Supplemental Assistance program. In addition, the state established the Pre-K Counts program, which is open to 3- and 4-year-olds in families earning less than 300 percent of poverty.


Unfortunately, current funding allows for only a fraction of eligible children to participate. In the five southeastern counties, just under 16,000 children, or 30 percent of those eligible, are enrolled in public pre-k. Right now, around 36,000 income-eligible children are not being served.


As in New Jersey, Pennsylvania’s public program has proven effective. Following participation in the program, the share of children who were school-ready increased from 22 percent to 82 percent.   


Looking ahead, there is movement toward increased access and quality across the region. In Pennsylvania, the statewide Pre-K for PA campaign is focused on dramatically expanding access to high-quality programs. New Jersey has set a goal of expanding pre-k for all at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds but has not yet funded the expansion. Delaware has received federal funds through a Race to the Top grant to continue improving the quality of public pre-k. 


The Quality of Public Pre-K in Greater Philadelphia


  • Education & Talent Development Early Learning


These 10 criteria have been idenfied as key markers of high-quality public pre-k program by the National Insititute for Early Education Research. By these standards, the state programs in our region are high quality.