In the 2010-2011 school year, an estimated 460 children were enrolled in early childhood education programs in the Pittsburgh Public School District thanks to the state funded accountability block grant. This year, Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2012 budget proposal includes the elimination of this grant.
“The accountability block grant is used for our preschool programs. It’s a significant piece, but it’s one of four funds we use to fund early childhood education in PPS,” said Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of PPS’s Early Childhood Program. “It will cause some reductions, although we don’t know how much.”
State funded accountability block grants, the Pre-K Counts Program, Head Start, and the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program pay for Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Program.
The governor’s budget proposes to eliminate accountability block grants, as well as five percent reductions to both Pre-K Counts and Head Start.
Last year, approximately 2,500 children were enrolled in PPS’s Early Childhood Program, which has a waiting list. Accountability block grants make up more than $5 million, or one quarter, of the program’s nearly $21 million budget.
“We have a limited number of spaces and each of our funding sources has some requirements that go along with it. Our Head Start has an income requirement,” Barone-Martin said. “We follow the children in our program throughout their careers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and we see a difference. The children definitely come to school with more aptitude for learning. The benefits, we just have so much research on how much better these students do, how they’re able to show persistence and self esteem, beyond the fact that they also come in knowing their letters and numbers.”
According to research 90 percent of children who are poor readers in the first grade will still read poorly by fourth grade. Governor Corbett himself advocated on behalf of early childhood education during his campaign in 2010, but now says the state cannot afford to fund these programs.
“One of our core functions is to provide for education at several levels starting with our youngest. We have less money than I would like, so we must adapt,” Corbett said in his budget address. “Earlier, I mentioned our proposal to use block grants to give counties and school districts the flexibility to adjust to their own, unique needs. That accounts for the transfer of four separate line items into a single block grant. Right now, education spending is bound up in a thicket of outdated and time-consuming regulations and mandates. The rationale here is clear. Local districts know better how to spend and allocate resources than do bureaucrats in Harrisburg. We leave the Basic Education Funding formula at its current level. There are no cuts. In fact, you will find a slight increase. Just as we did last year.”
While the governor’s budget does not decrease PPS’s Basic Education Funding, his proposed elimination of accountability block grants equals a decrease of $2.1 million in district funding. Last year, the governor made a similar proposal regarding the block grants, but the funding was partially restored.
“Just like this year there was no line item for it, but last year 48 percent of it was restored. We closed 15 classrooms last year,” Barone-Martin said. “I wouldn’t say it was a surprise because there were other options for how you could use accountability block grants, so I don’t think he thought of it as a cut to early childhood even though a lot of people use it for that. There is some cuts for the ones that are clearly early childhood education funding sources, but accountability block grants didn’t clearly scream out early childhood.”
While Pittsburgh prepares for a struggle to find funding to serve the children in it’s 86 early childhood classrooms, other cities like Philadelphia are facing cuts to their kindergarten programs, which are funded by the accountability block grants. In fact, in Pennsylvania accountability block grants fund full day kindergarten for 62,000 students.
“A lot of school districts use it for other things but in Pittsburgh we just use it completely for preschool. Pittsburgh already had full day kindergarten when the accountability block grants had come along; Pittsburgh had already worked it into our budget. Pre-school is not an entitlement program like kindergarten is. We take all children in kindergarten regardless; we find a space for them,” Barone-Martin said. “Under state law children don’t really have to go to school until they’re eight, but the state code says something like once you offer kindergarten you have to stick with it. I believe every school district in Pennsylvania does offer kindergarten even though they’re not required to.”
The proposed budget will consolidate four line items—basic education funding, pupil transportation, nonpublic and charter school pupil transportation and school employees’ social security—into one block grant.