September 22 — 1:15 pm, 2009

Needed: A seamless system

We know from decades of research that quality early childhood education is the most cost-effective way to improve a child’s performance in school and in life.

So it makes no sense that the United States still treats early education as a luxury or add-on.

While public education in grades K-12 is an entitlement for all, no branch of government has acted to guarantee every child access to a quality preschool experience. As a result, Philadelphia can provide only enough pre-K slots for one-fourth of the eligible children.

School readiness suffers; it should be no surprise that more than half of District students still are not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

However, we have witnessed that a lot can change quickly for the better with strong leadership. Pennsylvania has moved from the bottom third of states to the top third in early education on every key indicator.

It all started when advocates for quality child care persuaded then-candidate Ed Rendell to champion that issue in the governor’s race in 2002. His administration has done that, investing in new programs and taking on the issue of quality. Pennsylvania has earned plaudits for its groundbreaking work on developing standards and an accountability system – Keystone STARS – that parents can use to identify good care.

Unfortunately, those gains are precarious. In this year’s protracted state budget battles, child care and pre-K were under attack, mostly by Republican legislators. We are in financially difficult times, but cutting these programs would be terribly short-sighted. We will pay later.

Our efforts must go beyond resisting cuts. We must build a system to replace the fragmented patchwork of programs and services that allows many children to fall through the cracks. 

One troubling example is the Early Intervention program. This is a federally funded entitlement to support families of young children with developmental delays. But because the initiative is poorly publicized and complicated to access, it is not fully utilized. Hundreds of children with developmental delays – those who are most likely to struggle in school – don’t get support for school readiness. The problem is that it’s not anybody’s job to ensure that all children are screened and get needed services before they fall far behind.

This situation shows why we need a seamless system of early education. A parent should be able to go to one place to access the full spectrum of services for young children. Teachers should be well supported and informed about professional development opportunities. Providers should be connected to one another so that there is continuity of care and a smooth transition into school. A single office should be accountable for monitoring, addressing, and reporting on program quality and unmet needs.

This is not pie-in-the-sky. But strong leadership is needed to take the big leap to create a coherent system. The city and District should put one person in charge of the welfare and education of the city’s zero-to-five population – a czar of early childhood. The job: to break down the turf boundaries, sort out the maze of programs and funding streams, and serve as Philadelphia’s chief advocate on this issue.

At the state level, the struggle ahead is to build on recent gains. Activism by parents and the public can ensure that the candidates in the next governor’s race are champions of quality early education and make it a top priority.

This work cannot advance far without expanded support for early education from the federal government. Throughout the decade, lack of federal financial support has held back progress. But now the Obama administration has taken steps toward an enhanced federal role, asking Congress to put $8 billion into a new Early Learning Challenge Fund. Our local and state officials can position themselves to garner funding by moving aggressively toward a coordinated system.

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