From left: Scott Martin; Janet Diaz; Michele Wherley; Dana Hamp Gulick.
From left: Scott Martin; Janet Diaz; Michele Wherley; Dana Hamp Gulick.

There was little if any disagreement on the fundamental importance of early childhood education and high-quality childcare during an online "Candidates' Conversation" devoted to those issues Thursday evening.

Republican Scott Martin and Democrats Janet Diaz, Dana Hamp Gulick and Michelle Wherley all readily affirmed that access to child care supports economic growth; that helping parents early on pays tremendous dividends; and that there is a gulf between the cost of of quality child care and the state resources devoted to paying for it.

Martin, a former Lancaster County commissioner, is seeking his second term in the state senate, representing the 13th District. Diaz, his opponent, is a first term Lancaster City Council member.

Gulick and Wherley are candidates for Pennsylvania House districts 97 and 41, respectively. Their opponents, incumbent Republican state Reps. Steve Mentzer and Brett Miller, were invited to participate or submit prerecorded responses to the questions, but declined.

Candidates take part in an online discussion on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in this screenshot composite. Clockwise from top left: Scott Martin, Janet DIaz, Dana Hamp Gulick, Michelle Wherley.
Candidates take part in an online discussion on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in this screenshot composite. Clockwise from top left: Scott Martin, Janet DIaz, Dana Hamp Gulick, Michelle Wherley.

While conceding there is room for improvement, Martin was more inclined than the three Democrats to give state government credit for its efforts on children's issues. Early child education has been a bipartisan priority in Harrisburg, he said, noting that spending on it has increased and cautioning that there are "many different demands on the state budget for worthwhile things."

For their part, Diaz, Gulick and Wherley all called on the state to develop new revenue streams to underwrite program and service expansions.

Diaz said gambling taxes or a Marcellus Shale severance tax could go toward funding more services for children and families. Gulick called for closing the Delaware loophole, which allows businesses incorporated in that state to evade Pennsylvania's corporate tax. Wherley warmly endorsed the proposals.

Diaz also advocated legalizing marijuana — Gulick concurred — and promoting economic development by expanding the state's nascent industrial hemp industry.

Early education and child care in Pennsylvania

  • Nearly 102,000 children lack access to high quality, publicly funded pre-kindergarten;
  • Only 43% of licensed child care capacity meets high quality standards;
  • The average child care worker makes less than $10 per hour;
  • While evidence-based home visits have been shown to improve health and educational outcomes, only 5% of low-income families with children under age 6 receive them

Source: Children Matter Action Fund

The four candidates agreed child care providers and early childhood educators are underpaid. Wherley called for grants or tuition forgiveness to make training in early childhood education more accessible and encourage people to enter the field.

Martin said the state should do more in general to direct education funding to high priority fields — not only early childhood education, but nursing and the trades. He agreed the gap between provider costs and state payments is large and that reimbursement rates should increase.

Diaz, Gulick and Wherley all called attention to broader social problems underlying the immediate stresses of the coronavirus pandemic. They called for easing the many burdens on working families, particularly those struggling with low wages, limited English or other difficulties.

"I knew what it felt like to be hungry," Diaz said. Gulick said as a single working mother and domestic violence survivor, "I know what it's like to fight for services as a child."

Wherley said her working class parents raised their family on her father's salary: "That's almost impossible to do today," she said, which is why child care and education "has never been more important."

The 90-minute Zoom discussion was co-sponsored by the United Way of Lancaster County, Children Matter Action Fund, Community Action Partnership and Lancaster Votes.

The boundaries for Lancaster County's state House (left) and Senate (right) districts. (Source: OUL | Fair Districts PA)
The boundaries for Lancaster County's state House (left) and Senate (right) districts. (Source: OUL | Fair Districts PA)
Tim Stuhldreher