Crisis Looms over Educational Programs

Article excerpt

When Melissa Stanish's daughter, Anna Mack, started in her preschool program last year, she could barely write. By year's end, she could write her first and last name, and was making big steps toward getting ready for kindergarten, Stanish said.

"I liked going to the playground," 4-year-old Anna said. There aren't a lot of neighborhood friends in Carnegie that Anna can play with, Stanish said, so the program was her only frequent chance for socialization.

"There was slides," Anna said. "There was rock climbing and there was two slides."

Stanish worried about what would happen if Anna was one of the 300 children in Allegheny County turned away this year from government-subsidized preschool programs run by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. Hit by a combination of a state budget in limbo and a Legislature proposing huge cuts, the unit and several school districts in the county are putting plans and programs on hold just as the school year begins.

The intermediate unit is cutting Head Start and Pre-K Counts programs that serve children in 11 school districts. At least one district is holding its students out of a community college dual enrollment program, several others are delaying building plans and supply orders, including the purchase of textbooks, and others are taking out loans just to meet payroll.

Schools, mental health centers and child-care centers all are feeling pinched, relying on credit to get by without money they're owed by the state. The state's budget was due nearly two months ago, held up by debate on ways to close a $3.25 billion deficit. Gov. Ed Rendell rejected nearly $13 billion in temporary funding in hopes of getting more.

"This budget is going to define how we value children in Pennsylvania," said Ronald R. Cowell, president of the Harrisburg- based Education Policy and Leadership Center, who spoke at an Allegheny Intermediate Unit-sponsored forum last week on how budget cuts could affect programs such as the one that helped Anna. "It's going to define in many ways the quality for raising families, raising kids here, and ultimately our quality of life."

Clairton City School District Superintendent Lucille L. Abellonio was there, too, to talk about how she started her career as a volunteer working in a Head Start program. Clairton is facing cuts to its preschool programs run by the intermediate unit, but its state-related funding problems run even deeper than that.

About a dozen high school students planning dual enrollment at Community College of Allegheny County have to wait -- and might have to forego the program altogether -- without money from the state, she said. The district also has grant-funded kindergarten teachers whose jobs are in jeopardy. Clairton is temporarily paying for them out of its reserve funds, but there's no guarantee the state will provide the grants needed to keep those jobs, Abellonio said. …