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April 11, 2013

What Obama's budget proposal means to local residents

PITTSBURGH — Local early childhood education advocates welcomed President Barack Obama’s proposal to expand public preschool programs, but some senior citizens were not supportive of a change in Social Security cost-of-living adjustment criteria.

In his budget announcement Wednesday, Obama included a plan to offer preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The expansion would be financed by a higher tax on tobacco.

“This is a good thing,” said Julie Ankrum, associate professor of early childhood education and literacy at Pitt-Johnstown.

“There is a lot of research that shows all students benefit from quality preschool education.”

On the Social Security issue, the president proposed a switch in the way the government calculates the annual cost-of-living adjustments to a method that takes into account changes that occur when people substitute goods rising in price with less expensive products. It results in a slightly lower annual reading for inflation.

“That is a mess,” Joel McKeon said while playing cards at Johnstown Senior Activity Center, 550 Main St.

“It’s terrible. Let’s start at the top before we get down to the senior citizens. Let’s make cuts at the top.”

Cost-of-living adjustments have never kept up with true inflation, fellow card-player Curt Sanders said.

“As soon as they give it to you, everything goes up,” Sanders said. “This year my health insurance went up $15 (a month). My (cost-of-living) went up $9. Plus food went up, gas went up.”

A quality universal preschool program will pay for itself in the long run, Johnstown Schools Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak said.

“This is not a political issue,” Zahorchak said. “Everyone understands that it is clear, if you invest a dollar in high quality preschool, you get from $7 to $17 in return over the long term.”

Children provided with quality preschool go on to have better test performance, higher high school graduation rates and are more likely to complete college, Zahorchak said. As a result, they ultimately earn more money and pay more taxes.

“Kids who take part in quality pre-kindergarten are less likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system,” Executive Director Leah Spangler said from The Learning Lamp, 2025 Bedford St.

“There is a lot of research supporting the need for a quality pre-K,” she continued. “If they are involved in a quality pre-K, they are less likely to do drugs.”

Improved preschool education helps address the gap that exists between

lower socioeconomic groups and the more affluent, Ankrum said, noting that the disparity can be seen in standardized test scores.

“Children from lower socioeconomic families don’t score as well on standardized tests,” she said. “They haven’t been given the benefits that other students have been given.”

Although federally funded Head Start programs are available to help low-income families, there are few affordable programs for those who don’t meet the income guidelines, Spangler said.

“There are kids who are stuck in the middle,” Spangler said. “Their families are not low-income for Head Start, but they can’t afford tuition to private preschool.”

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