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Prekindergarten enrollment tumbles in Pennsylvania

Makayla Grant gets busy on her first day of preschool at SPIN-Parkwood in January.

Students get busy at SPIN Parkwood preschool in January. A national report released April 26 showed a significant decline in Pennsylvania’s pre-K enrollment from 2019-20 to 2020-21.

Emma Lee / WHYY

The pandemic led to a sharp decline in Pennsylvania’s prekindergarten enrollment, with more than 8,000 fewer children participating in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20 in programs for three- and four-year olds, a new report shows.

The drop from approximately 48,750 children to 40,560 amounts to a decline of nearly 17%, raising concerns that fewer children will be able to reach the goal of reading proficiently by the end of grade three – a crucial benchmark for future literacy and the likelihood of graduating from high school with the skills necessary for college and career.

“That’s a pretty big decline,” said Steven Barnett, director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which issued the report Tuesday. Some other states, he said, were down by only 5%.

Barnett said preliminary surveys show that the numbers have rebounded some this year, “but are not back to pre-pandemic levels yet.” 

This dip has happened despite efforts by the state as well as the federal government to underwrite programs so they could weather the pandemic’s impact on enrollment. For instance, last year the state funded its biggest prekindergarten program, Pre-K Counts, based on pre-pandemic numbers, and not the actual number of students enrolled. 

Pennsylvania and other states “did a pretty good job of stepping up,” said Barnett. 

Even so, Pennsylvania’s overall funding for pre-kindergarten programs between 2020 and 2021 declined by about $22 million to $318 million, as smaller state-supported programs, including school-based pre-K and Head Start, adjusted for the lower enrollments.

In 2020-2021, state-funded Pennsylvania pre-K programs served 8% of all three-year olds and 19% of four-year-olds, Barnett said. The national average was 5% of three-year-olds and 29% of four-year-olds.

“Pennsylvania still has a long way to go,” he said.

In his budget for fiscal 2023, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a $70 million increase in early childhood spending, including $60 million more for Pre-K Counts. But Barnett said in order to serve all the three- and four-year-olds eligible for Pre-K Counts – all those living under 200% of the federal poverty threshold – the state would have to spend at least $500 million more next year. 

“That would cost about a billion dollars,” Barnett said. “It means the state almost needs to triple its spending.” 

He said that half of Pennsylvania’s children under 5 fall below the federal poverty threshold, which is now $26,500 for a family of four. Barnett pointed out that neighboring New Jersey spends $815 million on pre-K, even though Pennsylvania is a bigger state in terms of population.

Barnett noted that all of Pennsylvania’s pre-K population could be served if President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better budget plan were enacted. Biden has proposed sending $100 billion to states over three years to help create universal pre-K across the country. Among other things, Biden’s plan would allow pre-K programs to raise standards and wages for their teachers. But for months, lawmakers have failed to reach a breakthrough in negotiations over Build Back Better. 

Carol Austin, executive director of First Up, a southeast Pennsylvania lobbying group for early education, said that in the Philadelphia region, enrollment has declined and programs are still having a hard time staffing child care centers. 

At the state level, “What we’re fighting for is an increase in base [pay] rates to hire better qualified teachers,” she said. In terms of supply and demand, she said, “We’re in a very challenging time right now. … Maybe in September, we’ll see [an upswing] in preschool again as COVID becomes the new normal. It’s all hard to predict.” 

Right now, she said, many low-income families are keeping their children home. “There’s a lot of fear”of the virus and of vaccinations or lack of them for the youngest children, Austin said. Many families also have moved their schedules around so their need for child care is reduced, she added. 

She said she is advocating for the state to do more messaging, through public service announcements and publicity campaigns, to stress the importance of preschool as part of a child’s education, and not simply child care.

Early education “is important for getting a child ready for kindergarten so they can move through a process of reading by fourth grade,” she said.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org. 

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