The Pre-K for PA Campaign
The grass roots movement for accessible, high-quality preschool for all Pennsylvania kids
When Tonja Claxton’s daughter started Kindergarten this past school year, she was well prepared. After attending a state-funded preK program for two years, school was nothing new.
“I’m thankful that my child was exposed to an amazing curriculum in pre-Kindergarten,” says the Philadelphia mom, who says she could not have afforded preschool without financial assistance. “As a low-income parent and single mother, I knew that early childhood education was important, and I noticed a difference between my child’s development with a supportive system and without.”
Because Claxton believes that every child, regardless of family income, should have that same advantage, she now advocates for early childhood education as a volunteer for Pre-K for PA.
Universal vision: High-quality pre-K for all
Pre-K for PA, a coalition backed and led by experts from 10 major statewide and regional educational organizations (see “Who’s Behind Pre-K for PA”), began in January as a way to use the 2014 election season to promote its mission of expanded access to high-quality preschool. The group will not endorse specific candidates; instead, it hopes to spread word of its vision through grass roots tactics. Its ultimate goal is to ensure that every 3- and 4-year-old in the state is able to enroll in a preK program of substance — one that entails a strong curriculum taught in a safe environment by highly trained teachers.
In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of preschool-aged kids currently do not have access to high-quality preschool, states Pre-K for PA field director Anne Gemmell. This is often because many families earn too much to qualify for state- or federally funded programs but too little to afford the expense on their own. Reducing that statistic, Gemmell notes, would give students a higher chance of future success.
Once kids reach elementary school age, “You’ve got increasing pressure on students to reach certain benchmarks, and there’s a lot of debate around the Common Core and increased standards, but there’s not enough substantive conversation about investing in those important early years,” Gemmell says.
Pre-K for PA's grass roots tactics
To spur that conversation, organizers and volunteers from the nonpartisan initiative meet with candidates, attend campaign events and speak to school board members statewide. The group also engages the public through social media (supporters send selfies to their state representatives via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #IAmPreK) as well as traditional campaign methods like lawn signs, car magnets and buttons.
Last month, a group of Pre-K for PA volunteers visited candidates’ offices to hand out petitions and read an open letter that called for the aspirants to prioritize preK programs. Volunteer Jessica Howie became interested in the issue when her 2½-year-old daughter enrolled in preschool. “When children start school with other students who haven’t been exposed to a preK environment, it puts all of the kids at a disadvantage,” she says. Gemmell contends that it’s also a disadvantage to communities.
“In the Northeast, sometimes having a strong education system makes the difference between where companies settle and where families choose to raise their children,” Gemmell explains. She points to states like neighbor New Jersey, which recently boosted preK funding in hopes that the investment will lead to cutting the dropout rate and costs related to unemployment and crime.
How to get involved in Pre-K for PA
Up until the November election, Gemmell says the best way to get involved is through the website PreKforPA.org; parents who are in civic associations can sign up as a supporting organization. The coalition is also hosting social media training over the summer, where participants can learn how to effectively engage with candidates online.
After campaign season, Pre-K for PA organizers plan to work out the specifics of expanding early childhood education. “Hopefully with a preK champion in Harrisburg who can help us and lead on the issue,” Gemmell says, “we can then support [pro-early education officials] in the difficult work of getting some legislation and investment through the general assembly in 2015.”