Last August, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Pittsburgh to announce a grant competition, offering a total of more than $200 million for early-childhood education. That same month, Mayor Bill Peduto formed a blue-ribbon task force to focus on early learning and to make recommendations for the state's application.
At the time, it seemed like the city was destined to get one of the federal grants. But when the recipients were announced last month, Pennsylvania was not among the winners.
"If we would have received [a grant], we would've had opportunities to open additional classrooms and increase the number of children we serve," says Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of early-childhood education for Pittsburgh Public Schools. "We were looking forward to expanding more slots in programs we already partner with, and building new partnerships."
This setback comes as a recently released report from the Education Week Research Center found that Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom for enrollment in early-childhood education programs. Now locals are looking to the state for additional resources to expand early-learning opportunities.
The report, released last week, found that less than 50 percent of Pennsylvania's 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. While this statistic closely aligns with the national average, Pennsylvania was ranked 41st among all states and earned a D+ rating overall for criteria including preschool and kindergarten enrollment, enrollment among children in poverty and the number of full-day programs.
Despite overall enrollment, Pennsylvania doesn't fare as well in enrollment for low-income children. According to the report, there is a 19.9 percent gap between early-childhood enrollment rates for non-poor children and poor children. For this category, Pennsylvania was ranked at the bottom of the list as 48th in the country.
"It's well documented, the difference between children who receive a quality pre-K experience and those who don't," Barone-Martin says. "We see a difference in how those students perform. The students who don't [receive it] come into kindergarten with far less."
According to the Education Week report, 64 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in families who earn $100,000 or more are enrolled in pre-K programs. Only 40 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in families making $50,000 or less are enrolled in pre-K.
In Pittsburgh, the federal grants would have gone toward developing or expanding high-quality pre-K programs in high-needs communities.
"We would like to see that all children have access to free preschool, and right now it's limited," Barone-Martin explains. "It's always a letdown when you don't get a grant that you're hoping for."
Now the school district has its sights set on Governor-elect Tom Wolf's upcoming budget proposal, and hopes to see an increase in funding allocated for early-childhood education.
"Each year, we always hope there will be funding focused on early childhood, so we can offer this opportunity for more children," says Barone-Martin. "This year we'll be anxiously awaiting the budget."
For its part in expanding early-childhood learning opportunities, last month the Heinz Endowments announced it was committing $9 million to early-childhood education over the next few years.
"It will support a range of initiatives that will further the work that the groups in Pittsburgh are doing in early learning," says Marge Petruska, senior program director of children, youth and families for the Heinz Endowments.
One of the ways these grants will be used is as challenge grants to corporations. If corporations want to commit money toward early-childhood education, as PNC Bank has done with the $73 million it's invested nationally, the Heinz Endowments will match that commitment.
Petruska says the grants could also go toward advocacy efforts at the state level and making sure early-childhood learning is a priority in Gov. Wolf's administration.
"Now, even more so since we didn't get the grant, there's a new sense of urgency to step up state advocacy," Petruska says. "It not just about early-childhood programs — it's work that has to be done with professional development of staff at these facilities and ensuring these programs are high quality."