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Expanded preschool access crucial to community, leaders say

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Pushing investment in early education, county leaders and organizations met Friday to discuss the community benefits of expanding access to preschool.

Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, State College Police Chief Tom King, retired Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson and Nittany Kiwanis Club President Bill Franz gathered at St. Paul’s Christian Preschool and Childcare to stress the importance of quality Pre-K programs.

The event was hosted by Pre-K for Pa., a nonpartisan campaign seeking to ensure that all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state have access to high-quality preschool by 2018.

Pre-K for Pa. is made up of several organizations, including Fight Crime: Invest in Kids and Mission: Readiness — Military Leaders for Kids, who have banded together to renew the push for better pre-kindergarten schooling.

King, who is a member of the Fight Crime initiative, said he is a big believer in preschool.

“A lot of law enforcement is prevention,” he said. “This is a whole different area of prevention that’s important.”

When a child drops out of high school, he said, the likelihood of being arrested skyrockets. Establishing a good education early helps prevent these dropouts from occurring. Also, he said he’s willing to look at anything that can help reduce the cost of corrections.

Even though prison populations didn’t change, the prison system is spending $150 million more this year than last, Corman said.

Wilson identified the lack of available preschool education as a “national security issue,” saying a Department of Defense study concluded that 75 percent of the nation’s 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible for military service.

This ineligibility is based on three things, he said: having a criminal record, almost always involving drugs; health issues, such as obesity; and poor academic achievement.

“If you’re selecting from 25 percent of the pool of people available,” he said, “you put a serious limitation on yourself.”

The limited pool of people are the people that everyone is looking for, he said, from military to industry to education.

Franz, who also is the site manager for the Benner Pike Wal-Mart, echoed this “war for people,” saying he often encounters applicants who can’t pass a background check or drug test.

Corman supported the need to invest in preschool, saying his three children also went through quality early education. The challenge, he said, is finding the money.

Although Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget is based on a $12.5 billion tax increase over the next two years, he said, those numbers are not realistic. What level of revenue will be available remains to be seen.

One way to free up funds is through pension reform, he said.

“I’m not one that believes lower taxes solves all problems,” he said. “I want to be able to invest in the future in a lot of areas.”

After the discussion, Corman and King briefly toured the school, stopping to read “If You Give A Pig A Pancake” to about a dozen delighted preschoolers.

“I think it’s so important to hear all those different viewpoints,” center Director Joan Stroemel said. “It makes it more evident to me how important it is to get these kids an early start.”

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