Correction appended

There are currently 14,000 quality pre-K seats and 42,500 3-to-5-year- olds in Philadelphia, according to the latest report from the Philadelphia Commission on Universal Pre-Kindergarten.

The 17-person commission held a public hearing yesterday to welcome feedback on its most recent report, published earlier this month. The report discussed options for blending local, state and federal funding to pump the number of quality, publicly funded pre-K seats in the city. The commission, created through a massive 80 percent vote during last May’s primary, pegs the cost of a pre-K budget for the city at $60 million annually. Kenney, who not only backs universal pre-K but campaigned on it, is expected to announce potential funding streams in his upcoming budget address.

Philadelphia’s universal pre-K system, a long called-for educational option in line with the widespread scholarship touting the benefits of early childhood education, would cover 3- to 5- year-olds. The commission, whose members are essentially the architects of the city’s program, is studying which methods would be best to create more quality seats. In the report, they offer three:

  • pay quality providers to expand with entirely city-funded slots,
  • subsidize highly rated providers by tacking funds onto their pre-existing state and federal grants,
  • or go for a mix of those two.

The city’s pre-K program would operate on entirely different funds from the school district, which currently is the largest pre-K provider in Philadelphia.

The hearing, which offered community members a chance to give feedback on the report, pulled in mostly speakers who testified about the benefits of early education. Principals spoke about pre-K students’ enhanced grasp of color and shapes, and teachers detailed how unpreparedness can cause lags that trail children through middle school.

The cost of pre-K

Allison Acevedo, ‎education director at the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, was there to talk about the financials of running universal pre-K. She doesn’t think just allocating dollars to pay for more seats will cover the costs.

Keystone STARS, a statewide rating system, ranks early child education centers on a scale of one to four. While Philadelphia’s commission only considers three- and four-star centers “quality,” one recommendation in the commission’s latest report outlines a field of viable partners as four-star, three-star and two-star providers considered three-star ready. Acevedo recalled a center that the United Way helped upgrade from a two to three stars, and the costs associated with that.

“It cost $30,000 over 18 months to understand the culture of quality… Even after 18 months, the center still had barriers,” she said of the process. “I just want to emphasize that quality is not cheap and takes time.”

Christopher Rouse, an instructor at four-star rated Western Learning Center at 16th and South streets, testified for the commission that his $9.60-per-hour salary allowed for no safety net, and a series of unfortunate events left him homeless. “I had to live in a box,” he told commission. “What pre-K instructor can live in box when you’re teaching in a colorful world with all these children?”

He went to work at the childcare center while living in a shelter. His work at the center keeps him going, but Rouse currently lives with his sister because he’s unable to afford a place of his own.

“I make peanuts. I told the director that I have to leave the job because no one will rent to someone who doesn’t make a suitable income,” he said. “I’m a fool for staying here, but I truly, truly, truly love it.”

While the commission acknowledged this hasn’t been noted in the report, the new plan would mandate $15 per hour for certified instructors and $50,000 per year for those with bachelor’s degrees. “We cannot build this program on the skills of people who continue to be impoverished,” said Sharon Easterling, executive director of Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children and the commission’s co-chair.

Billy Penn made several requests to multiple commission members for further numbers on cost per pupil, and how these estimates will cover staffing and facilities costs. None were returned by press time. The $60 million budget would not cover the whole program; the report is open about a need for philanthropic investment. Still, the hearing left many questions about how much of a tab the private sector will need to pick up.

What can this hearing accomplish?

Easterling said the commission will “take everything and put it into brackets” following the hearing — community involvement, pedagogy, diversity concerns and so on. “We’ll look at it against what we’ve got in the report,” she continued. One speaker called for a standardized curriculum while another asked for lesson plans that would accommodate different styles of learning — a sign that the commission can’t please everyone.

The report recommends ways to close the gap in the number of quality pre-K seats, but does not outline every expansion cost. For example, SPIN, which currently operates three pre-K centers for the school district, recently spent $391,000 to renovate a school building for a fourth location, its CEO Kathleen Brown McHale told the commission.

Out the 14,000 seats that the Commission counted as “quality,” 9,000 are run through the school district. While the commission maintains that the city’s universal pre-K program would have an entirely separate funding stream, a more collaborative, and potentially delicate dynamic will likely play out— universal pre-K could fund operators to expand programs that the school district is already backing, and Easterling added that programming will overlap intentionally.

“Consistency. So everyone’s on the same page,” she explained. “We do think if we do this well and we do it to scale, we’ll be able to relieve some of the burden on the school district.”

What’s the next step to bring universal pre-K to Philadelphia?

The next draft of the report will be the final one— an update based on the commission’s take on best remarks from this week’s hearing and upcoming community meetings, while folding in Kenney’s financing strategy. The current draft targets the 2017 fiscal year as a start date. The final report should be published this April.

Kathleen Shaw, the executive director of Research for Action recited an excerpt from a consensus letter from the National Institute for Early Education Research during her testimony Monday. “An extensive body of research in education, developmental psychology, neuroscience, medicine and economics shows that quality early childhood education programs produce better education, health, economic and social outcomes for children, families, and the nation,” she read, later adding, “This level of consensus is virtually unprecedented.”

Correction: The original version of this story stated that only the school district’s 6,000 externally contracted programs were included in the quality count. However, all 9,000 of the school district’s programs are included in the count. The internal programs are not rated through Keystone STARS, but the commission considers their quality based on teacher certifications and participation in Pre-K Counts and Head Start.

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic Monthly and Spoke,...