Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts (PA PKC) is a state-funded prekindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-old children to help them gain school readiness skills. The goal of PA PKC is to help reduce educational disparities by providing high quality prekindergarten for children who lack opportunities or reside in environments that place them at risk of school failure. State advocates for the program – including Alliance ally Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children – were having increasing difficulty making the case for continuing to expand funding for PA PKC without access to Pennsylvania-specific data on the program’s impact. This past winter, however, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill rereleased two studies on PA PKC that showed a strong return on the state’s investment. Allies leveraged the new research during the most recent legislative session to garner more funding for PA PKC – $25 million more.
PA PKC has a mixed delivery system and is offered in high-quality child care settings, school districts, Head Start, and Department of Education privately licensed nursery schools. Children attend 180 days per year and are offered a full or part day option. The program guidelines include standards consistent with high quality, including teacher qualifications, curriculum and instruction, screening and assessment, classroom self-assessments, and family engagement. Preschool Program Specialists assist PKC programs in the development and implementation of quality child care and education systems.
Although there have been significant investments in PA PKC since its inception in 2007, there had never been a formal, independent evaluation. In December of 2020, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a report, which included two studies, Kindergarten Impacts of the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts Program: A Statewide Evaluation and Implementation of the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts Program: A Statewide Evaluation. The impact study examined the effects of participation in PA PKC on children’s early academic, social, and executive function skills in kindergarten focusing on whether there were differences in performance for children with one or two years of enrollment in PA PKC compared to children with no ECE experience in the two years prior to kindergarten. The implementation study surveyed administrators, current and former families with children in a program, and compared families whose children did not participate in Pre-K Counts.
Both studies of PA PKC conclude that the investments in pre-kindergarten have been beneficial to Pennsylvania’s youngest learners. The evaluations show children participating were positively impacted compared to children who were not participants in the pre-kindergarten program. Children who participated had significantly higher levels of language skills and math skills. The impact study yielded consistent results statewide regardless of geographic region, the percent of 3-year-olds enrolled, or how urban or rural of a location, indicating steady implementation of regulations and curriculum and providing participating children equal educational opportunities.
The Pre-K for PA Campaign, an Initiative of the Early Learning PA Coalition, began using the new state-specific findings to advocate for the program. Other states in the Alliance for Early Success network — including Alabama and New Mexico – shared similar studies from their own states, and the Alliance helped advocates locate a multi-state analysis that included eight states. Kari King, President and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, says the connections to colleagues in other states were a big part of the success of the final brief.
“Policymakers wanted state-specific outcome data, but they also wanted really up-to-date national research showing the efficacy of pre-k – not just the expected citations of Perry Preschool or the Abecedarian Project.
Having the Alliance network to quickly provide expertise on local, recent and credible studies added this needed context to our brief and gave our legislators exactly the information they requested, which is always a smart tactic in advocacy”
President and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children
As King met with policymakers and shared the report, it was clear many who had been “lukewarm” on PA Pre-K Counts in previous years were becoming much more supportive and positive. And it was more than talk.
The FY 2021-22 budget recently signed by the Governor includes an increase of $25 million to the PA Pre-K Counts program, one of the few increases for early childhood in the FY 2021-22 budget.
In addition, a $5-million increase was provided for the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program, which also increases access to publicly funded, high quality pre-k in the state; providing for a total increased investment for pre-k programs of $30 million in the FY 2021-22 state budget.
Advocates will continue to use this positive evaluation to urge further increases in pre-k funding, as well as to request designated state funds for ongoing, regular independent evaluations of the program.