As district attorney, I know that some of the most valuable tools at our disposal are the ones we can use proactively to avoid crime before it starts, instead of reacting to crime as it happens.
One of these tools is increasing the availability of high-quality early care and education programs – they’re a powerful way to give kids a great start at life, helping them to avoid becoming involved in later crime. Research shows that disadvantaged kids who attend high-quality early education programs are more likely to succeed in school and less likely to commit crimes as adults than similar children who do not attend such programs.
In fact, new research by the University of North Carolina found that children who participate in Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts program are 4-5 months ahead of their peers who didn’t attend the program by the time they get to kindergarten. Additional research from other states shows these gains persist, with increased math and reading test scores through as late as eighth grade.
Children who attend a high-quality pre-k program were also shown to have lower rates of discipline for behavioral infractions – with the gap widening throughout middle and high school. Clearly, the path to better academic achievement, fewer high school dropouts, and lower crime and incarceration in our communities can start with enrollment in high-quality early education.
There are certain features that these quality programs have in common, including: highly-qualified teachers, developmentally-appropriate standards and curricula, appropriate teacher-child ratios with small group sizes, monitoring and improvement systems, and screening and referral to additional services.
Unfortunately, the most important component of early education – the highly qualified teacher – is something that is increasingly in short supply these days. A new survey of almost 1,200 Pennsylvania child care providers showed that 92 percent of respondents reported a current staffing shortage. This is resulting in closed classrooms (reported at more than half of responding providers) amounting to a system-wide contraction of more than 34,000 slots and a current wait list of over 25,000 for child care.
Low wages are largely to blame for the current child care staffing shortage. Early childhood teachers typically earn substantially less than kindergarten teachers with an average hourly wage of roughly $10 per hour. In fact, half of child care teachers in Pennsylvania rely on public assistance to meet the needs of their own families, and 1 in 4 leave the field every year. That’s staggering and unsustainable.
These educators are well-trained and they need to be adequately compensated. Excellent teachers engage in positive interactions with children to support their development and provide quality instruction in early academic skills. Without high-quality early childhood education teachers, many of our children will not have the opportunity to engage in early learning environments that can provide a positive impact for years to come.
In addition to current child care wait lists, more than 100,000 eligible children do not have access to our state funded pre-k programs and approximately 160,000 eligible children lack access to Pennsylvania’s subsidized child care program – Child Care Works. These figures will only get worse if this current staffing shortage persists. We know that early childhood education is transformational in the lives of our most at-risk children. We need to take steps to ensure that more children can participate, rather than fail to address one of the most basic issues that can attract and retain these highly-qualified educators: their compensation.
Fortunately, the federal government did include substantial resources in the American Rescue Plan to help stabilize the early care and education sector. More than half of that money will soon be flowing to providers to help with current challenges, including the staffing shortage. Pennsylvania policy makers should release the remaining federal child care funds as quickly as possible to further help the early learning sector.
This one-time assistance, while important, will not solve the broken business model of early education. State and federal policymakers must continue to grow access to early learning programs for eligible families and address the needs of the early childhood workforce to ensure that children reach their full potential and be free, in part, from the pitfalls of delinquency and crime.
Matt Weintraub was appointed District Attorney in 2016. Weintraub was elected to serve a full, four-year term in 2017.