Philadelphia Universal Pre-K Gets a Funding Boost

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney shakes hands with Janet Haas of the William Penn Foundation, which has announced a grant to increase access to early childhood education. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s dream of universal pre-K got a $15 million boost this week in the form of a one-time grant by the William Penn Foundation, reports Philly.com. While campaigning last year, Kenney, who took office in January, promised to make citywide pre-K a cornerstone of his administration.

Only a third of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality, publicly funded pre-kindergarten. A commission on the subject reported last month that such a program will cost about $60 million per year, and recommended that a mixture of public and private funding be used to foot the bill.

The William Penn Foundation’s $15 million contribution marks the first major philanthropic investment in this goal. The grant money, which will go through the Fund for Quality, a local program that provides financial and planning assistance to early childhood education centers, is projected to create 1,500 spaces for preschoolers in approved quality centers by 2021.

Kenney’s goal is to create 10,000 such spaces throughout the city over the next five years.

The commission’s February report also recommended that the city give priority placement to children at highest risk of not being prepared for kindergarten, including kids from low-income households and children in homeless families.

The commission also noted that early childhood education yields great returns on investment, citing findings that for every dollar spent on high-quality child care, $4 to $16 is saved on services like special education and remediation later on. Kenney has also proposed a 3 cents per ounce soda tax that he believes could generate up to $400 million for projects like universal pre-K.

New York City hit a major universal pre-K milestone this year, thanks to another mayor who made it a top priority. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration the number of children enrolled in full-day pre-K rose from 20,000 to 65,000 at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. For the first time in the city’s history, de Blasio said on the first day of school in September, any 4-year-old in the city could attend pre-K for free. That program is costing the city $300 million per year, and has been criticized as wasteful because it also helps the children of wealthier families.

Seattle’s run at pre-K, which aims to create 2,000 spots in 100 classrooms by 2018, offers free tuition to children of families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and is being funded by a four-year $58 million property tax levy, at an annual cost of $14.5 million.

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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