A child who doesn’t attend preschool is roughly half as likely to meet third-grade reading standards, according to local data from Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS). City officials, business leaders and local education groups are now pushing to ensure Cincinnati’s children no longer fall into that gap, but they first must find a way to pay for the fix and, if it involves a tax increase, take it to voters.
Cincinnati’s Preschool Promise aims to provide a quality preschool education to all local children by mimicking a program in Denver, where parents can opt for tuition credits for quality preschool programs. The tuition credits are provided through an income-based sliding scale, so low-income parents get the most help while the wealthiest get the least.
Greg Landsman, executive director of the education-focused Strive Partnership, characterizes the Preschool Promise as one of the most important policies Cincinnati could undertake to ensure long-term economic success. Backed by swathes of data and studies, Landsman argues the Preschool Promise could reach every corner of the city in a way public policy rarely does.
Landsman makes part of his argument with comparisons to Denver. In Cincinnati, only 57 percent of students are considered “ready for kindergarten.” In Denver, the number rose to 90 percent after voters approved a preschool program in 2006.
The program could also increase the amount of quality options for preschool students, according to Landsman. During the first year of the Denver program, the city held claim to only 45 quality preschools. That number climbed to 250 by 2012.
The Denver program also provides more direct benefits to Denver parents and families. A 2012 report from consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates found the program allowed more parents to work or attend school and gave low- and middle-income families more opportunities to rise to higher income levels.
Over a lifetime, those improvements can translate to huge economic gains. Different studies on preschool programs found benefit-cost ratios ranging between roughly 4-to-1 and 16-to-1 for society at large. (As the process moves forward, the Preschool Promise campaign says it will obtain localized numbers for Cincinnati.)
Landsman has been working on the issue since 2012, following a 2011 meeting with Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper in which Hickenlooper called Denver’s preschool program the most important action the region took when he was mayor of Denver.
The comments led Landsman and other local officials to approach the issue with a sudden shot of enthusiasm. Landsman told CityBeat during his unsuccessful bid for City Council this year, “Getting universal preschool for every 3- or 4-year-old in this city — to fundamentally reduce poverty, change outcomes for every kid, improve every single school, make it easier for businesses to attract and retain talent, and get the city growing again — is way more important to me than my election.”
For the Preschool Promise campaign, the first major issue is setting the parameters of the program. Based on various financial models run by supporters, Landsman estimates that a universal program covering all 3- and 4-year-olds would cost $15-$17 million a year.
That cost could be decreased by reducing the subsidies for parents or by only covering four-year-olds, but Landsman says providing preschool to three-year-olds as well would go a lot further in growing Cincinnati’s economy and making the city more attractive to families on the move.
“If we want to be first in the nation instead of simply playing catch-up, yes, it’s between $15 million and $17 million,” Landsman says.
Under the program, low-income families with 3- and 4-year-olds would particularly benefit. According to models run by Preschool Promise organizers, 71 percent of tuition credits would go to families below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or an annual salary of $47,100 for a family of four.
Beyond covering 3- and 4-year-olds, the program would also give higher tuition assistance to parents who choose higher-rated preschool centers in an effort to encourage quality programs. It would also provide teacher training, credentials, professional development and proven curriculums and teaching methods to centers to help them boost quality.
The program could also include home visitation for children 3 and younger, which Landsman says would add another $3-$5 million in annual costs.
“Their data is unbelievable in terms of taking someone who is in a horrible, horrible situation and getting them developmentally on track,” he says.
Then there’s the question of whether the Preschool Promise should come with K-12 reforms. Landsman says the reforms would obviously increase the cost, but it would also attract more interested parties and private contributors.
Private contributions will play a role in funding the Preschool Promise, but it needs to be a full public-private partnership to really work, according to Landsman.
“To do the preschool piece in particular, there’s going to have to be public support for it,” he says.
Right now, supporters are looking at various avenues for public funding: The city and CPS could appropriate money, CPS could levy a property or income tax, or a ballot initiative could hike property or earnings taxes.
Landsman says there are benefits and drawbacks to each option, so Preschool Promise organizers will need to collect feedback and data to settle on one or a mix of the options.
Regardless of what supporters choose, Landsman says he’s committed to putting the issue in front of voters in 2014. But given voters’ history with school ballot measures — this year, Columbus voters rejected a levy to reform Columbus City Schools 60 to 40 percent — how likely is it Cincinnatians will vote in favor of the Preschool Promise?
On behalf of the Strive Partnership, Public Opinion Strategies in June posed the question to 350 likely voters in Cincinnati. With a margin of error of roughly 5 percent, 79 percent of respondents said the city “should be involved in helping ensure all parents have access to a quality preschool program that they can afford.”
Landsman also argues against comparisons to the Columbus City Schools levy. He points out the levy essentially gave more money to a troubled school system and included a host of provisions voters didn’t or couldn’t fully understand.
To avoid similar issues, Landsman promises heavy community engagement that will help dictate what a proposal ultimately looks like.
“How we do it is a matter of debate,” Landsman says. “Quite frankly, there’s got to be a good deal of community engagement, not only on how we fund it but what’s in it.”
He adds, “We’re going to have to be focused. It’s going to have to be very simple.”
For Landsman, it’s about finding a way to make it work. He calls the Preschool Promise an obligation to the thousands of children who fall behind from the get-go because they don’t attend a quality preschool program.
“For me, it’s about getting it done because I believe we have to,” Landsman says. “It’s religion for me.” ©
Greg Landsman encourages anyone interested in setting up a community event, presentation or house party to discuss the Preschool Promise to contact him at 513-646-0186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.