After some deal-making, CPS and Preschool Promise will ask voters to fund universal preschool

Joint tax levy will seek $48 million this November

click to enlarge Universal preschool could help level the playing field for the city’s most disadvantaged kids.
Universal preschool could help level the playing field for the city’s most disadvantaged kids.

Cincinnati’s childhood poverty rate is among the worst in the country. But if voters approve, the Queen City could be the first to try an ambitious effort to alleviate some of the earliest obstacles that poverty creates and lift up the next generation.

Proponents of the Preschool Promise initiative have been planning for two years to put a tax levy on the ballot that would make Cincinnati the first city in the country to guarantee two years of high-quality preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old. And earlier this year, Cincinnati Public Schools started making plans to put its own education levy on the ballot.

After months of negotiating, the two officially teamed up this week, announcing a $48 million tax levy proposal that will go to the ballot box in November. That could be huge for the 47 percent of Cincinnati children younger than 6 who live in poverty.

“This opportunity represents a commitment by all to quality equitable education and choice for children and families,” said CPS Board President Ericka Copeland-Dansby at a May 23 board meeting, where the joint levy was officially approved. “It has the potential to transform lives, strengthen neighborhoods and improve the economic vitality of our community.”

Preschool expansion advocates say quality preschool is a way to help level the playing field for the city’s most disadvantaged kids.

“This will begin to help us break the cycle of childhood poverty and help families in significant ways achieve more for themselves and their children,” says Preschool Promise strategic advisor Greg Landsman.

Early-childhood education experts tend to agree.

  A recent study of kids in Tulsa, Okla. by Georgetown University found that kindergarteners who had attended preschool were significantly ahead of their peers in reading, writing and math, with low-income kids benefiting the most from starting their educations earlier.  

The Georgetown researchers believed the results occurred because of the rare emphasis on quality Oklahoma’s universal preschool system requires. Every lead preschool teacher in the state must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified in early-childhood education and paid the same wage as a public school teacher. It caps the student-teacher ratio at 10 to 1.  

Preschool expansion has become a nation-wide push in recent years. In 2014, President Barack Obama pledged an additional $1 billion in federal funding to support early-childhood education programs.

At the state level, Ohio has also been pouring more resources into preschool. For the 2016-17 school year, the state budget allocated $70 million to pay for preschool for 17,000 kids, more than triple what it funded when Gov. John Kasich took office in 2011. 

According to an annual report released this month by education nonprofit, National Institute for Early Education Research, less than 5 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool. The NIEER report ranks Ohio 36th in the country for preschool enrollment. 

The report’s rankings didn’t factor in the 34,000 Ohio children who are currently in quality-rated private programs. Ohio’s Department of Jobs and Family Services gave out $82 million last year to help private centers to improve programs, and $35 million of that went to programs with ratings of three stars or higher.   

Landsman says Preschool Promise’s plan involves supporting two groups: families who cannot afford quality preschool and have exhausted their options to receive aid through other government programs and local preschools to improve their quality.

But getting enough of Cincinnati’s preschools up to a high quality level while simultaneously providing enough financial support for families to send their kids to them could be challenging. 

Preschool Promise plans to use the state’s preschool ranking system, called Step Up To Quality, to determine which of Cincinnati’s preschools are hitting the mark. The system ranks preschools on a five-star system based on the choice of
curriculum, education level and wage earned by its teachers and the school’s assessment process of the children. A rating of three stars or above is considered to be a quality preschool. 

According to Landsman, about 36 percent of the city’s 9,200 3- and 4-year-olds have access to either a CPS preschool seat or a place in a quality private program. Only about 25 percent are actually enrolled in one of these programs. 

One reason is that private preschool programs — quality-rated or not — can be pricey, ranging on average between $8,000 to $12,000 a year for a full-day, full-year program. This creates a financial barrier for many families who are unable to obtain other financial assistance. The federal Head Start program for low-income families only covers 35 to 40 percent of those eligible. 

And even with tuition rates that rival those of public universities, some centers don’t have the financial resources to achieve the state-approved quality rating. 

The state only requires public programs funded by the Department of Education — which includes CPS — to participate and achieve a quality rating. Participation for private-licensed programs is still optional, meaning few Cincinnati preschools have been rated.

Currently, of the 1,020 private, licensed childcare facilities in Cincinnati, only 99 have a rating, and just 38 have a rating of three stars or above. 

Better funding could change that, Terri England says. She’s the director of the New Horizons Child Care Center in Evanston.

England’s center is rated two stars by the Step Up To Quality program. Improving her teachers’ levels of education and wages are factors that could help the center earn additional stars. 

“They have to make a prevailing wage, and they have to have those benefits, and we can’t provide that,” England said at a May 17 CPS Finance Committee meeting. “And with this, maybe we can.” 

Officials say preschool expansion has been already been a priority for CPS in recent years. For the next school year, it’s planning a $4 million expansion to add 385 preschool seats to its current number of 1,200 seats. CPS is attempting to cope with an uptick in overall enrollment and a predicted budget shortfall of $60 million in the next five years. The district has been working alongside Preschool Promise long before talks of the joint levy emerged. Three of its officials are on Preschool Promise’s 43-person steering committee.

The proposed five-year levy approved by CPS will likely ask for a 7.95-mil tax increase, with $33 million going to CPS and $15 million to Preschool Promise annually. The increase would amount to less than $300 in additional taxes for the owner of a $100,000 house, according to the district.

But there are still details to figure out, says Stephanie Byrd, a member of the Preschool Promise steering committee and executive director of the United Way’s Success by 6 program. The work ahead includes drafting the actual language on the levy, creating a system to ensure funding is going to quality preschools, getting tuition vouchers to families that need them the most and doing a lot more community outreach.

“It’s going to be a very difficult fall with all the political campaigns that are going to be so loud and vocal,” Byrd says. “We have to get our message out above all that noise, and that’s going to be really hard to do.” ©