Researchers and politicians on both sides of the aisle agree: good pre-kindergarten programs are essential for success in school, particularly for low income children. But for the second year in a row, state funding for pre-K has dropped nationwide. And in Ohio, the cuts have been particularly deep. StateImpact Ohio’s Molly Bloom reports.
Ohio isn’t doing a great job of getting children, particularly low-income children, into good, state-funded preschool programs. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s been true for several years running.
What Counts as Pre-K?
The NIEER report only looks at state-funded preschool programs that serve 3- and 4-year olds, are distinct from subsidized child care programs and are not primarily designed to serve children with disabilities. Only one Ohio early education program, the Early Childhood Education Program, currently meets those criteria.
The Early Childhood Education Program currently provides funding for 203 school districts, educational service centers and joint vocational schools to operate preschools, Ohio Department of Education spokesman Patrick Gallaway says. Those school districts may then contract with other groups to actually provide preschool.
These preschool programs are located across the state. The biggest programs last year were in Canton, Sandusky and Columbus.
The programs serve 3- and 4-year-olds from families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, with a sliding fee scale for families above the poverty line. For 2012, that line’s at about $23,000 for a family of four.
“Ohio is one of those states that has gone back and forth. It’s looked very good at some times and more recently has been a disaster,” he says.
Ohio actually had nearly 20,000 fewer children enrolled in state-funded pre-K last year than 10 years ago, NIEER says. And Ohio has the distinction of meeting the fewest number of national benchmarks for quality preschool.
The 2009 state budget slashed state funding for pre-K in Ohio. Last year’s state budget did not restore those cuts. And there are few signs that the current administration intends to restore the money that would allow more families to enroll.
But there’s better news for those wanting to improve the quality of state-funded preschool programs. Ohio won a $70 million federal grant under the Race to the Top competition. That money will fund projects including better training for preschool teachers, better monitoring of existing preschools and development of new tests for preschoolers.
“We’re hopeful that securing the new grant, the Race to the Top money, that that’s going to help us build stronger foundations and be able to move forward to really help our earliest learners,” Ohio Department of Education spokesman Patrick Gallaway says.
What it won’t do is restore state funding cuts.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained to us last week why Ohio won the federal money.
“We wanted not just to fund on past performance but around state’s visions of where they’re going. So clearly Ohio has a ways to go, but our peer reviewers were very impressed by their commitment to getting there. It’s critically important that these not be just nice plans on paper,” he says.
And Duncan says states — including Ohio — will be held accountable for delivering on those plans.