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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Allegheny County should create a department dedicated to improving early childhood education and after-school programs, according to the report of a 25-member working group created in March by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

The working group’s report, issued Tuesday, recommends supporting a new Department of Early Learning and Out-of-School Time with a budget of $20 million a year, though it also evaluates the potential impact of smaller budgets.

The recommended budget would allow the department to secure quality early learning for 900 children and after-school programming for 1,500, plus help some 50 providers to improve their offerings, according to the report.

Such a department would “send a profound message that Allegheny County holds children among its highest priorities,” the report says, adding that the human services and health departments already do much — but yawning needs remain.

The report cites research showing that investments in early education and after-school programs pay for themselves at least three times over by reducing the number of students repeating grades, needing special education, dropping out of high school and ending up incarcerated, and by boosting their earnings as adults.

“High school dropouts are estimated to earn $260,000 less and actually cost taxpayers $292,000 over their lives,” according to the report, which also notes the county’s annual juvenile justice budget of $44 million — more than double the proposed new department’s allocation.

Thousands of children in the county are getting no early education, and many more are with providers that haven’t met quality benchmarks, according to the report.

“Early childhood programming in Allegheny County is severely underfunded,” the report continues, and smaller providers can’t afford to upgrade quality to meet various benchmarks.

McKeesport, for instance, has just two Head Start preschool providers for an estimated 1,241 families living in poverty, according to the report, and Penn Hills has 4,794 families that could qualify for state-backed Pre-K Counts preschool — but just three such classrooms.

Gaps are even greater in terms of after-school programming, with an estimated 25,000 school-age children in the county unsupervised after the final bell rings — and therefore at risk of falling into “anti-social behaviors” — according to the report.

The recommended $20 million budget includes $1 million for staff, outreach and data development. At $10 million, the program would serve roughly half as many kids but would not include grants to help providers to improve their offerings. At $5 million, the department could enable 225 children to join high-quality preschools, and 375 to get after-school programming.

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