Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Now Have a Real Stake in the Current Budget Impasse in Harrisburg

As a follow-up to a post from earlier this month, Amy and I visited two new pre-school options earlier this week. As we prepared for the day, we wondered if a place existed that had openings and would be conducive to our kids' extra needs without being too cumbersome from a cost and travel standpoint. I'll skip to the punch line: I think we have a winner beyond all expectations, but only if the legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can break through its current impasse and pass a budget for 2009-2010.

Let me explain. The second of the two places we visited earlier this week was downright perfect for our kids. It has won awards for both its care (highest accreditations) and its architectural design (so kid-friendly and whimsical that for a minute I thought I was at the Please Touch Museum). I know the executive director from having sat on a board with her a couple of years back. During our tour, we observed teachers and students of all races and ethnicities, a fun mix of activities and wall decorations, and carefully thought out room layouts and curricula and meal menus.

Nicely, the place is sensitive to kids with unique needs, as it has an array of special instructors to provide extra attention and to work with parents in terms of Individualized Education Plans. When Amy heard how aggressively involved they were in IEPs, she practically jumped out of her seat. Heretofore, she's soldiered on in that arena with very little support and with far too many headaches and roadblocks.

Best of all, there was an opening for Jada and even one for Aaron. Apparently, they have long waiting lists for age groups above and below - they are currently leading a capital campaign to expand into an adjoining building - but room for our two.

So we were ready to sign up Jada right away and slot Aaron in for a January 2010 start. Despite the higher cost - over 60 percent more than what we currently pay - we felt it would be worth it to bite the bullet for Jada to get her a little more caught up before kindergarten.

But then things got even better. My colleague informed me that their center participates in a Commonwealth program known as "Pre K Counts," whereby the center is reimbursed by the Commonwealth for the equivalent of 8 am to 3 pm for 180 days per year for any students who receive early interventions. If we wanted to do full-day pre-school and/or have our kids in for more than 180 days a year, we'd only have to pay the differential. So Jada can start this September and Aaron next January (when he turns 3), for a fee that is actually lower than what we currently pay. Incredible!

There's a catch. Funding for "Pre K Counts" depends on the Commonwealth successfully passing a budget for 2009-2010. No budget in place, no "Pre K Counts." And no "Pre K Counts," no partial subsidy. So, having followed the budget debates peripherally as a consultant and citizen, I now have a real stake in the issue. (By the way, there's already one casualty: one cut that has already been made is that the Commonwealth is no longer covering speech therapy during the summer, so Jada's next session will be in the fall.)

The center is in West Philadelphia but hard to get to by public transit. So after January, Amy will likely drive them both. From September to January, either I'll walk Aaron to the current place on my way to work, and Amy will drive Jada to the new place; or I'll bike Jada to the new place and Amy'll walk Aaron to the current place.

However money and travel play out, Amy are happy to have found a good place for our kids. Jada will love her new school, and Aaron will soldier on at our current place until he turns 3 in January, and then he'll get in on the action. And, hopefully, the setting and the teachers and the extra attention will do wonders for the various places where they need the help, so they can be less constrained in their overall development.
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