Governor Strickland’s budget (introduced as House Bill 119) may not offer any carrots to supporters of school choice in Ohio (see here), but his proposals to expand access to pre-kindergarten options for low-income children deserve some serious attention. They could also benefit from a little more imaginative thought.

In his State of the State speech, Governor Strickland declared, “We must recognize the facts: we have a readiness gap that leads to an achievement gap that results in an outcome gap.” His words are borne out by an abundance of national and state academic achievement data. A recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) ranked Ohio 20th (out of 38 states with state-supported initiatives) for access to preschool programs for three-year-olds, and 33rd for access to programs for four-year-olds (see here). Consider that just one percent of Ohio’s three-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program in 2006, and only four percent of four-year-olds (together that amounts to just 8,100 children).

House Bill 119 includes several proposals to expand parent access to quality pre-kindergarten opportunities for their children. Particularly praise-worthy are the governor’s efforts to make the state’s Early Learning Initiative (ELI) more user-friendly for low-income parents. Launched in July 2005, ELI uses federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to subsidize quality child care and preschool programs for low-income children. All ELI providers are required to adhere to Ohio’s early learning teaching standards; increased monitoring and data-collecting are also part of the program.

Yet certain provisions make it hard for parents to keep their children enrolled in ELI. A six-month review, whereby parents’ eligibility is re-determined, poses considerable difficulties for otherwise qualifying families. For one, these reviews don’t follow a predictable schedule. Rather they are based on the date of children’s initial enrollment--and thus are in no way connected to sensible benchmarks in an educational program (such as the beginning or end of a school year). In addition, notices of upcoming reviews are sent by mail, a problem for low-income parents who often change residences during the year. And incomplete or out-of-date paperwork, or the loss of a job, can result in youngsters being dropped from the program.

To ensure greater access to the program, Governor Strickland seeks to align the eligibility requirements for parents and guardians at 200 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $26,000 per year or less for two working parents). Doing so would make 2,000 more children eligible for ELI. To sustain enrollment in ELI, the governor would jettison the six-month review and eliminate the work requirement for parents whose children participate. The result would be a more streamlined and reliable program for families and pre-kindergarten providers.

Unfortunately, Governor Strickland’s efforts to guarantee or raise the quality of ELI and its providers are not as far-reaching as they could be. In part, that’s because quality is still largely determined by inputs: teaching degrees and credentials, additional funding, and expanded professional development or training opportunities. And while a couple of Strickland’s proposals have merit--such as raising the basic education requirements of teachers, there is little mention of determining providers’ effectiveness at teaching children critical cognitive, pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills. (Some data is being collected about ELI providers, but an outcomes-based accountability framework has been slow in developing.)

Now to the imagination piece. Maximizing pre-kindergarten access in Ohio is critical considering that an estimated 43,000 youngsters arrive ill-equipped to succeed in kindergarten classes each year (see here). While ELI may be a lifeline for some of the state’s neediest children, it does not constitute a comprehensive pre-kindergarten program. As we’ve noted before (see here), experience from Florida offers important lessons for Ohio in its effort to create voluntary pre-K options for parents here. The Sunshine State spends almost $2,600 per-child for half-day preschool (during the regular school year)--for any parent who wants it. As a result, almost half (47 percent--over 105,000 preschoolers total) of its four-year-olds are enrolled in preschools run by a variety of providers--school districts, private providers, religious schools, etc. In short, parents decide where to send their child, while the state pays the cost and ensures provider quality.

Ohio’s budget is stretched tightly as it is, and universal pre-kindergarten is likely nowhere on the horizon. But a relatively modest investment aimed at lower- to middle-income families could ably assist parents struggling to afford a quality preschool education for their children. Simply rerouting the $22 million earmarked for district preschool programs to half-day funding (at around $3,000 per-child, considering lower student-to-teacher ratios and the like) for preschools of all kinds could give 7,300 more children access to early years education. (Under HB119’s district funding scheme, that number would be just 2,500.) Allocating another $15 million could swell that figure to over 12,000 pre-kindergarten slots. Add those ELI-enrolled youngsters, and Ohio might finally make a dent in that dismal figure of 43,000 ill-prepared kindergartners. And it would do so without having to create a new framework of public providers or another state-level bureaucracy, instead utilizing a well-established network of preschool providers already operating in Ohio under state standards. Call the program a means-tested preschool initiative, call it an income-based tuition allotment--just don’t call it a voucher. Either way, parents earning up to say, 300 or 350 percent of the federal poverty level and ineligible for ELI, would gain access to qualified preschool providers for their children. Families requiring full-day programs could more readily make up the difference themselves.

To ensure quality, kindergarten readiness data could be traced back to individual providers (again, as Florida is doing) by employing Ohio’s much improved K-12 data system that assigns each student a unique, secure identifying number. Poor-performing providers would be prevented from receiving state funding. Additionally, the state would be able to support quality providers and strengthen its early learning standards based on comprehensive student data. Additional funding for the program, over time, might come via tax dollars saved on student interventions, remediation, and even special education.

Strickland’s modest proposals to expand access to state-funding preschool programs should be supported. Yet bolder and more imaginative thinking will be needed to ensure that all of the state’s preschoolers have a shot at being ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

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