Preschool Promise: Hard Road from Vision to Plan

Children engaged in early learning activities. Photo: public domain.

Public education from kindergarten through grade 12 is often viewed as the “great equalizer,” a way to ensure everyone has a fair shot at the American Dream.

But John Pepper, the former Chairman and CEO of P&G, believes that his nine grandchildren now gain a significant edge in school and life because his family can afford preschool while most others cannot.

“My 22-month-old grandson is already in preschool two days per week, said Pepper, speaking Sunday evening April 10, as part of a guest panel convened by The AMOS Project on Preschool Promise, a vision of universal preschool in Cincinnati.

“I ask myself, how can we possibly justify–my family and my children’s family–having a benefit we know is so important, and deny it to parents and children who have lesser means?”

Universal preschool is “the social, economic, and moral imperative of our generation,” said Pepper, who sits on the Preschool Promise Steering Committee.

Expected Returns on Investment in Kindergarten Readiness

The United Way of Greater Cincinnati, which strongly supports kindergarten readiness in the region, reports that “disadvantaged children may come to school at least two years behind their peers in pre-reading skills, and most never catch up.”

Quality preschool is intended to equip children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the cognitive, social, and emotional skills to make them kindergarten-ready.

Kindergarten readiness, in turn, is arguably a precursor to later academic success, which in turn, improves earning potential, which could help ameliorate income inequality, foster social mobility, and promote other desirable outcomes not only for students but also for parents, the school district, local businesses, taxpayers, and society at large.

Preschool Promise envisions full-day, universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds in Cincinnati Public Schools. It might cost as much as $25 million per year, said Greg Landsman, spokesperson for Preschool Promise, speaking at a March 31 meeting hosted by Woman’s City Club of Cincinnati.

“The business community is in

full support of Pre-K education.”

Tom Williams

President and CEO of North American Properties

This investment in early childhood education likely would more than pay for itself, according to a report entitled Informing Investments in Preschool Quality and Access in Cincinnati by the RAND Corporation prepared under contract with the Cincinnati Business Committee and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

Based on its evaluation of other studies, RAND concluded that every dollar invested in quality preschool would likely return between $2.50 and $4.20 and possibly as much as $11 in positive economic benefits. The think-tank cautioned, however, that like EPA fuel ratings on cars, “your mileage may vary.”

Funding discussions are centered on a shared property tax levy with CPS which, if agreed to by CPS, would be placed before voters in November.

Preschool Promise is the highest priority for AMOS, says Troy Jackson, the executive director of the coalition of more than 50 congregations working for racial and economic justice.

Over the last 18 months, AMOS and its supporters have been refining the vision of Preschool Promise using four principles set out in the People’s Platform: respect every child, racial equity, only good jobs, and family voices at the center.

The immediate challenge is to turn the vision into a concrete plan, starting with a plan to fund the program or, as Jackson suggested, at least stage one of the program.

“The business community is in full support of Pre-K education,” said Tom Williams, president and CEO of North American Properties, past chair of the Cincinnati Business Committee, a co-chair of the mayor’s Child Poverty Collaborative, and a co-founder of Nehemiah Manufacturing, a local employer of second-chance citizens.

“We just have to figure out how to come together and figure out how to do this and do it right,” said Williams, a guest panelist.

“The question we have to wrestle with tonight is, how do we pay for it?” said Pastor Damon Lynch, III, as he opened the meeting at his church, New Prospect Baptist, in Roselawn.

The Vision of Preschool Promise

The vision, as it currently stands, calls for making voluntary, full-day preschool available for all 9,000 of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds. Tuition would be based on a sliding income scale and free for families with an annual income less than twice the federal poverty guideline.

Preschool providers from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, including in-home providers, in greater Cincinnati could receive tuition reimbursement for students who reside within the district boundaries of Cincinnati Public Schools, provided they meet a minimum quality standard of at least three stars under Ohio’s Step Up to Quality 5-star rating system.

Preschool Promise envisions that parents would have options near home or work so that student transportation will not be a significant cost in the operation of the program. Thus, increasing the number of quality providers, especially in underserved areas, is a significant component of the vision.

In Hamilton County, there were 122 preschool programs as of April 1, according to 4C for Children, a state-designated child care resource and referral agency for 40 counties in Ohio and Kentucky. Of these 122 programs, 52 programs (43 percent) were rated 3-star or higher out of five stars.  Some providers operated multiple programs.

“A lot of our providers cannot afford what it takes to get to quality or to sustain quality,” said Greg Landsman, a spokesman for Preschool Promise, noting that many are minority owned and operated without ready access to capital and other resources.

To improve their quality rating, Landsman said, these providers need adequate revenue to attract and retain degreed teachers or equip existing staff with necessary teaching credentials, to acquire an evidence-based teaching curriculum, and to acquire student assessment tools so teachers can guide students in their learning.

“The resources just aren’t there for early childhood education, especially for small centers,” said Kathy Tyler, who owns and operates In God’s Hands Christian Youth Center in Kennedy Heights. Tyler, whose small center is licensed to care for 52 children and carries a 2-star rating, thinks Preschool Promise could make more resources available for small centers.

In God's Hands Christian Youth Center is owned and operated by Kathy Tyler, an advocate for Preschool Promise. Photo: Mike Brown, C4AD.
In God’s Hands Christian Youth Center is owned and operated by Kathy Tyler, an advocate for Preschool Promise. Photo: Mike Brown, C4AD.

It is envisioned that providers like Tyler would be eligible to receive quality improvement grants. Additionally, providers that exceed the minimum 3-star rating would receive a higher rate of tuition reimbursement.

Before CPS took control of Head Start funding, says Tyler, centers like hers were able to receive Head Start funds for services like speech therapy, but those funds are now virtually inaccessible. Tyler says Preschool Promise would bring better transparency and accountability of funding to centers.

CPS currently operates a preschool program in 80 classrooms around the district for 1,200 students of whom 79 percent are from low-income families, said Ericka Copeland-Dansby, president of the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education. CPS intends to expand the program to 1,500 students in the 2016-17 school year.

CPS, according to the promotional literature for its preschool programs, uses professional educators with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education, maintains a ratio of one adult for every 10 children in all preschool classrooms, offers safe play areas, and provides nutritious breakfast, lunch and snacks for children.

Working Towards a Concrete Plan

Participants at the Sunday meeting authorized AMOS representatives to explore the possibility of funding Preschool Promise using a property tax levy piggybacked on the CPS levy in November. Increasing the city income tax was selected as an alternative funding option even though the business community is believed to be opposed to it. This option would require approval by city council. There was no further discussion of using sales tax revenues to fund the program.

A shared levy with CPS had been previously endorsed by co-chairs of the Preschool Promise Steering Committee–Bishop Michael Dantley, Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Mann, and Avondale activist Ozie Davis III–in an April 8 Enquirer editorial. The Enquirer Editorial Board also endorsed the shared levy approach in an April 1 editorial.

In FY2014, CPS depended on two property tax levies for about 60 percent of its general revenues: one levy in 2012 for 8.55 mills and another in 2014 for 65.2 mills. Together, these two 5-year levies generated $304 million in revenues from property taxes and payments in lieu of taxes, according to the district’s latest comprehensive annual financial report.

CPS’s levy request for the November election has not yet been formalized, but it must be submitted no later than early August, at least 90 days prior to the election date.

Landsman does not expect the levy to fund all Preschool Promise costs. Other sources might include state, county, and private sources.

Views on universal preschool are not unanimous.The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, in a recent report, argues that “an ambitious national investment in early childhood care and education would provide high societal returns.” A report from the center-left Brookings Institute, on the other hand, urged a more cautious approach, arguing that expected outcomes have not been adequately demonstrated in academic studies.

Turning the vision into a concrete plan is now the challenge for AMOS and the supporters of Preschool Promise. There are many pieces to the puzzle, and many views about how the pieces should fit together. The challenge is compounded by the fact that there is precious little time left before the August deadline for submitting a levy request.

A concrete plan is expected in early May.

CORRECTION 4/28/2016: The article had incorrectly implied that Preschool Promise was considering a city-wide property tax levy in conjunction with a CPS district-wide levy.