Pittsburgh has $2 million to spend on early education. How it factors into universal pre-K goals and why a spending plan took 14 months.

Fourteen months ago, Pittsburgh City Council set aside $2 million to support early childhood education in the city. On Tuesday, officials introduced a plan for how the money can be spent.

What exactly will the pot of money provide? Why did it take this long to come up with a plan? And how does it factor into the city’s goal of universal pre-K, where all families would have access to high-quality preschool?

Simply put, the new plan means child care facilities located in the city will be able to apply for city money to fund projects that could elevate their status on a state quality rating system, called STARS [Standards, Training/Professional Development, Assistance, Resources and Support]. The STARS ratings range from one to four.

Higher ratings allow facilities to earn more state funding per child they supervise. Projects that can affect STARS ratings could come in many forms, from capital projects like fixing windows and roofs or building fences to operational costs like the purchase of curriculum material and providing professional development for staff.

At the Catholic Youth Association in Lawrenceville, for example, additional funding could allow them to start building a new neighborhood playground or replace some worn-out equipment.

Tiffini Simoneaux, the city’s early childhood manager, said in August that it was important to help child care facilities move up in the STARS system so that they could access additional state money.

“In some ways, we’re leaving money on the table by not having the number of [high-quality] programs,” Simoneaux said.

The city stated in a press release on Monday that the funding will be available starting in July. The nonprofit Alliance for Infants and Toddlers will accept and review applications, while a committee of city officials and experts will oversee the funds.

The city created Simoneaux’s position in 2015 as part of the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment. PublicSource interviewed Simoneaux in the summer and again in February about the $2 million fund that had been left untouched since the December 2017 allocation.

“We are working on a plan to get that administered in the best way possible,” she told PublicSource last week.

Many officials, experts and educators in Pittsburgh agree that putting money toward improving child care facilities is necessary, but one former council member who helped secure the $2 million still has questions.

Mayor Bill Peduto speaks to the media in November 2018. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

“...What took so long? Why is this just happening now?” former City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said on Monday after the plan was announced in a press release. Rudiak advocated for early childhood education consistently during her time on council; she left office in January 2018.

Mayor Bill Peduto said on Tuesday that the city had to wait until it could find an appropriate agency to help spend the money before it could take action.

“There was no organization to put the money in,” he said. “It would require staffing beyond what we have and expertise beyond what we have.”

He added that the nonprofit the city chose will be able to help get existing child care agencies to that STARS 3 and 4 level.

“This organization will be able to go through those that are not 3 and 4 STARS and work with them specifically on what is missing in order to be able to get more 3 and 4 STARS,” he told reporters. “That's the first criteria of what we need to do and the City of Pittsburgh just wasn't the proper agency to do that work.”

Council President Bruce Kraus, who represents the South Side, said on Tuesday that the delay in spending the $2 million was simply the result of how government functions.

“If we put forward good initiatives, it does take some time. But we're tenacious, and we keep after them, and they bear fruit, and today is one of those days,” he said. “It's a good day. We are changing the world. It’s just happening slower than any of us thought it would happen.”

Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus. (Photo by Stephen Caruso/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus. (Photo by Stephen Caruso/PublicSource)

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith echoed Kraus’ sentiments. “There were probably some concerns about how the money would be spent out [and] who would oversee the program.”

City hall and other nonprofits have been studying the need for a more dedicated focus on early childhood education for several years now. To improve child care in the city, two early efforts identified helping child care facilities increase their rankings by providing public funds to make facility and program improvements.

Still, the long-term future of city funding for early childhood education is uncertain. The city’s $2 million is a one-time allocation, and a 2016 report by The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers said true universal pre-K in the city would cost anywhere from $154.8 million to $189.3 million per year, though other funding schemes for pre-K could cost less.

To secure more funding, Simoneaux said the city is looking to Peduto’s OnePGH plan. OnePGH is Peduto’s idea to pool funding from the city’s largest nonprofits and corporations and spend the money on Pittsburgh’s social problems. Once OnePGH is in place, Simoneaux said universal pre-K would be on the list for year eight or nine. The funding for OnePGH is not yet secured, and there isn’t a set timeline for rolling the program out, Peduto said on Tuesday. Councilwoman Deborah Gross said she’d like to see some of the money given out as small loans instead of grants so that there’s a “revolving door” of funding.

A 14-month journey

The $2 million was allocated in December 2017 at the same time that City Council was debating a plan to fund the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a $10 million pot of money for housing and homeowners. While members were examining various funding sources for affordable housing and hammering out the final details of the 2018 budget, Rudiak and Councilman Corey O’Connor worked out a deal to start funding early childhood education.

“We all had discussions on what would make sense, and this was part of a compromise that we could all agree on,” said O’Connor, who represents Hazelwood and part of Squirrel HIll.

Rudiak at the time was optimistic and hopeful that the city could use the funds to leverage other state money.

“I won't necessarily be on city council to see this through but I think we have advocates in city council and also in the mayor's office to make that sure this moves forward,” she said in a December 2017 interview.

As time wore on, Rudiak started to question why Peduto’s administration wasn’t spending the money, opting instead to let it sit in a reserve fund.

“It’s clearly not a priority. I don’t know what they’re doing,” she said in an interview earlier this month before the mayor’s office announced its plans to spend the money. Peduto’s administration wrote the proposed legislation, and City Councilman Corey O’Connor introduced it to council on Tuesday.

Rudiak also wants to know what’s happening to another $250,000 she helped dedicate for early childhood education in 2015. “Do they even know this exists?” she said.

The 2015 push for more funds toward early childhood education included creating the Office of Early Childhood and later hiring Simoneaux.

Peduto said he doesn’t know if the other $250,000 will be spent alongside the $2 million. Several council members also said they weren’t sure how that money would be spent. The money is sitting in a capital budget fund.

How it will work

The legislation states that the city will contract with a group called The Alliance for Infants and Toddlers to distribute the money and a committee of City of Pittsburgh experts and officials will provide oversight on who and what kinds of projects are awarded funds. The money will be given out as grants, and possibly loans, to child care facilities so they can make capital and operational improvements.

The Alliance for Infants and Toddlers is a partner of the Allegheny County Early Learning Resource Center [ELRC], which is a local branch of the state’s Department of Human Services Office of Child Development and Early Learning. The county’s ELRC will also provide coaching and technical support.

According to Simoneaux, the grants from the city would be administered as part of a program to either get facilities into the STARS system in the first place or to help STARS 1 and 2 facilities meet the STARS 3 and 4 criteria.

STARS 1 programs, for example, the lowest ranking, merely have to be in compliance with state and federal standards. STARS 3 and 4 programs, the highest rankings, have to show much more, like the use of detailed curriculums and data on children that informs lesson plans.

Moving up that scale can mean more money from the state, according to its current reimbursement rates. For each child who qualifies for the income-based Child Care Works program, a full-time child care facility that has a STARS 1 rating can receive $0.35 per day from the state. For each qualified child in a full-time program that has a STARS 4 rating, a facility can receive between $7.50 and $8.40 per day from the state.

The need

At the Catholic Youth Association’s [CYA] Lawrenceville headquarters on Feb. 11, child care workers were feeding babies with bottles while other children played with toys on a purple mat. It’s a busy building — there’s a senior center on one floor and a commercial kitchen for preparing food for the kids, seniors and Meals on Wheels. Tracy O’Connell, the childcare director, oversees five classrooms of infants, toddlers and preschoolers and she has plans to add two more classrooms in the near future. She said they have 100 kids on their waitlist.

The Catholic Youth Association’s childcare center is considered high quality — it ranks four out of four stars on the state’s STARS system. But that doesn’t mean money is flowing, O’Connell said. Teachers there earn between $20,000 and $28,000, and there are plenty of things the center needs. She could spend the whole $2 million city fund “in seconds,” she said.

“Garbage bags! You know how many garbage bags we go through?” she said. “It's insane.”

Because CYA recently lost out on an annual $9,000 reimbursement from the state, there’s been some pressure on the budget, which is why O’Connell is hoping she’ll be able to apply for some of the city’s funding.

“We are doing OK and lower-income [centers] need it more, but it's getting to the point where, will we be left behind because we're OK?” she said.

On average, CYA charges $67 per day per child. Those charges can add up quickly for families — child care is often equated to mortgages or college tuition. But even with the fees, O’Connell said  money can be tight at CYA.

“If you throw in a livable wage, health insurance, all the bills, all the stuff, diapers, wipes, food, snacks, all the way down to the lowest stuff, it's way more than $67 a day,” O’Connell said. “It's a business no one wants to get in, which is why there are waitlists out the wazoo, because you don't make money.”

Pamela Keen is the chief executive officer of The Children’s Home of Pittsburgh & Lemieux Family Center in Bloomfield. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pamela Keen is the chief executive officer of The Children’s Home of Pittsburgh & Lemieux Family Center in Bloomfield. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Not far from CYA is A Child’s Way, a center that’s half medical facility, half day care for “medically fragile” children. A Child’s Way serves kids with a range of physical and developmental disabilities and is run on the first floor of The Children’s Home of Pittsburgh & Lemieux Family Center in Bloomfield. It’s a maze of several sprawling rooms with medical equipment and toys intermixed. Nurses’ stations abutt play areas, mats and cushions where the children lounge and play. A Child’s Way is a much different facility than traditional child care centers — they receive grant money from foundations and offer families a sliding fee scale; their medical work is also reimbursed through Medicaid and other insurance companies.

But Pam Keen, the CEO of The Children’s Home, said they still have more traditional needs. She’d like to restructure A Child’s Way to make more space for the kids. There are more older children in A Child’s Way now, she said, and they need more room for gurneys and for youth to move around.

Her other big need? Getting the word out. A Child’s Way doesn’t have a waitlist currently, Keen said, and having more interest in the center could allow them to expand.

“Top of my wish list would be to have some donor walk in the door and say, 'Here's $2 million to market yourself next year,'” she said.

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL

Madeleine Davison, a former PublicSource intern, contributed to this report. She can be reached at madeleine@publicsource.org

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