With elementary and secondary students back at school, attention is turning to the state's youngest pupils. The School Readiness Solutions Group, formed at the behest of the State Board of Education, recently released its recommendations for improving early learning services for Ohio's children aged birth to five.

Each year, almost one-third of the state's 130,000 children entering kindergarten come unprepared to succeed in school. Often, they require intensive remediation or special intervention services, and several thousand are required to repeat kindergarten altogether. The gap between achievers and non-achievers in kindergarten is notoriously difficult to close as students progress through the school system.

Within the report's pages are some valuable recommendations: requiring early learning providers to meet stricter licensing regulations; developing a comprehensive accountability system for providers, including a rating system for early learning programs; requiring teachers to possess at least a bachelor's or associates degree in early childhood learning; and compelling Ohio's school districts to offer full-day kindergarten (though not until 2015).

But the underlying premise of this report--that state-funded early learning services should be offered to all of Ohio's children--lands far from the mark.

While universal access to early learning services for Ohio's youngsters is a laudable goal, it's hardly a practicable solution. For one, the funding component of the plan is more vagary than reality--especially considering Ohio's present budget troubles. The state's K-12 funding system is a shambles, evidenced by four state Supreme Court decisions. And like punch-drunk fighters, school districts across Ohio continue to mount levy campaigns in spite of taxpayer fatigue and repeated rejection. (Just 29 percent of school levy and tax proposals on the August 6 special election ballot were successful.)

The additional curricular and staff requirements required to ensure quality early learning would further exacerbate the problem. Though K-12 costs are not directly comparable to early education costs--preschoolers don't need science labs or football coaches--it is reasonable to assume that early learning's smaller class sizes would make them more expensive, per pupil, than Ohio's K-12 schools. Teacher ratios in early learning classrooms run from a low of 1:5 for infants to 1:14 for most preschoolers. And tuitions of $8000 or more at high-quality private preschool programs suggest that Ohio would need to spend more than the $5400 per pupil currently allotted for K-12 education.

This is not to say that young children should not or cannot have access to high quality early learning services. But the goal of such a program--to eliminate the achievement gap--should be focused on those who need it most: children at risk because they're economically disadvantaged or are living in historically poor performing school districts.

A smaller, targeted program would be easier to manage fiscally and allow for more creativity. For example, in light of current education finance woes, per-pupil funding might be eschewed in favor of state grants made to qualified providers with a proven track record of success. The program could be expanded over time, in part by reallocating elementary remediation and intervention dollars no longer needed--a benefit of catching students early. Thus growth would be both measured and sustainable, and quality easier to monitor.

While the Solutions Group should be commended for its hard work and ambition, Ohio's youngest pupils need a solution that is both imaginative and viable.

"A Familiar Ohio Story," Editorial, Akron Beacon Journal, September 3, 2006.

"This is Important?" Editorial, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 1, 2006.

"Early Learning Called Crucial," by Catherine Candisky, The Columbus Dispatch, August 26, 2006.

Download the School Readiness Solutions Group report here.

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