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Education

Pa. House budget plan would spike child care wait lists, advocates say

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, June 26, 2017, 11:42 p.m.
Chloe Tavares, 3, of Beechview is held by her mother, Maria Tavares at a holiday party at the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center's preschool, at Our Lady of Loreto School in Brookline in December 2015. Statewide, preschools and day care facilities with parents who rely on state subsidies could lose funding under the 2017-18 budget plan approved by the state House, according to advocates and Gov. Tom Wolf.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Chloe Tavares, 3, of Beechview is held by her mother, Maria Tavares at a holiday party at the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center's preschool, at Our Lady of Loreto School in Brookline in December 2015. Statewide, preschools and day care facilities with parents who rely on state subsidies could lose funding under the 2017-18 budget plan approved by the state House, according to advocates and Gov. Tom Wolf.

Pennsylvania's wait list for state-subsidized child care could climb to a historic high of 19,000 children under the budget plan approved by the state House, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf warned Monday in Pittsburgh.

The GOP-controlled House's $31.5 billion proposed budget — leaner and more aggressive in cost-cutting than the Democrat governor's plan — calls for a $28 million reduction in child care assistance.

The deadline to pass a state budget is Friday. Senate leaders continue to negotiate their own plan.

As part of a last-ditch advocacy push, city and state officials joined local proponents of early childhood education inside a preschool classroom at Providence Connections Family Support Center in Pittsburgh's Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood. Speakers representing Wolf, Mayor Bill Peduto and The Heinz Endowments urged lawmakers to reconsider the potential cuts.

“Child care subsidy provides access to high-quality programming like this classroom right here at Providence, as well many across Pittsburgh and across the commonwealth,” said Suzann Morris, deputy secretary for the state's Office of Early Childhood Development and Early Learning.

“And we know that decades of research show that quality matters for children, and really provides the best resource for them to have the right start for future success as well as kindergarten readiness.”

Wolf's office estimates that proposed cuts in House Bill 218 would lead to 6,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds being added to the child care wait list — now at about 12,650 children — for a 50 percent increase in families statewide who can't afford to pay for child care and no longer will receive state help.

“The thing that scares me the most is we have so many families that struggle,” said Samantha Ellwood, executive director of Providence Connections. “They want to do the right thing and they want to work and care for their children, and they could potentially lose care.”

Despite the cuts to subsidies, the House plan still increases early childhood education spending overall by $25 million over last year's budget.

But Wolf's $32.3 billion spending plan — which relies on tax hikes that irk Republicans — would increase annual child care assistance by $35 million, for a total of $62 million more than the amount allocated by HB 218.

Wolf said his plan would enable 1,800 more children to use subsidies. The governor also proposed a $9 million increase to provide another 1,700 families with home visiting services, which involve agencies checking on new or struggling parents and helping them set goals to achieve self-sufficiency.

“It is critically important that we have public investments that philanthropy can bolster,” said Michelle Figlar, vice president for learning at The Heinz Endowments. “Without those public investments, our vision of creating a city and a region where people want to come to work, where people want to come in and innovate, where people want to come and raise their families, will not happen.”

Advocates say they're further worried because data show the state already isn't serving many families who should qualify for help.

“There would not be a region that would not feel the pain of these cuts,” Morris said. “And we're not even making a dent at this point in all of the families who qualify.”

Statewide, about 64 percent, or 114,000 eligible children, do not have access to publicly funded programs, according to 2015-16 data from the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning.

The office recognizes both Allegheny and Westmoreland counties as areas with relatively high unmet need.

To be eligible, able-bodied parents must be working or enrolled in jobs training courses and meet income requirements.

HB 218's proposed cuts could mean that families who are eligible now will lose eligibility, Morris said.

“It has so many ramifications,” said Peduto spokeswoman Valerie McDonald-Roberts, the city's chief urban affairs officer. “We have to let Harrisburg know that House Bill 218 is a no-go.”

HB 218 cleared the House in early April on a 114-84 vote .

Spokespersons for House and Senate leaders did not return calls for comment on Monday.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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