The 2016 election was one for the record books. But despite the polarizing presidential results, Hamilton County saw clear wins for public program funding: The Great Parks Levy passed easily, the Hamilton County Children’s Services Levy was renewed, and most notably, Issue 44—commonly known as Preschool Promise—passed with a large majority. But what exactly was Preschool Promise, and how will its passage impact our local schools?
For the last decade or so, the conversation about preschool in Cincinnati has been all about access. The majority of educational stakeholders agreed that preschool was a crucial readiness step for children entering kindergarten. “Over the last 10 years our community has gained greater understanding that kindergarten readiness is important,” says Stephanie Byrd, interim executive director for Preschool Promise. Research from the RAND Corporation found that preschool education “helps prepare students for kindergarten—developmentally, academically, and socially—and is also associated with lasting positive outcomes.”
But historically, there haven’t been enough seats in quality preschool programs for all the 3- and 4-year-olds in the region. As a result, many of these children spend those years in unregulated day care settings or with family members, with little to no preparatory curriculum.
“We know we don’t have enough quality preschool seats,” Byrd says. She explains that there are around 9,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the city of Cincinnati. “We estimate that 7,700 children will want to participate. There are about 7,100 preschool slots, and only about 40 percent of them are quality. Our challenge and our opportunity is to increase the number of quality seats, especially in communities where access and resources have historically been limited.”
Cincinnati Public Schools and other districts have prioritized access (by launching programs such as the Rising Stars Academy to provide hundreds of new district-sponsored preschool spots), and have now turned their attention toward quality. They have leveraged relationships with United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Cincinnati Preschool Promise, and other partners to maximize impact and reach as many local students as possible.
The idea was this: a $15 million tax levy for Preschool Promise (which was part of a $48 million levy with Cincinnati Public Schools), to be spent on expanding quality preschool offerings in the Cincinnati Public School district boundary and aligning existing preschool programs with state standards. As reported by NPR, “over 60 organizations in the city came together to endorse Issue 44; and approximately $1.2 million was spent to promote the issue.”
The only local organization to go on record against Issue 44 was the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes (C.O.A.S.T.). They claimed that the tax increase proposed by the levy was too high, and that CPS’s challenges with school rankings rendered them undeserving of additional funding. Despite these objections, Issue 44 passed easily, with a 38-point lead.
According to Janet Walsh, director of public affairs for Cincinnati Public Schools, “Cincinnati Preschool Promise was out there first articulating a wonderful vision that really caught fire. The coalition that came together and worked tirelessly in collaboration to support Issue 44 became incredibly diverse,” she says, “and expanded well beyond what it started as into all sectors of the community; that contributed to a historic win.”
Most of us know the term “food deserts,” those low-income areas with limited access to whole foods. But “quality desert” is a relatively new metric that educators use to track disparity in our region’s preschools.
According to Cincinnati Public Schools, a quality desert is “a neighborhood in which there is a deficit of 100 or more quality preschool slots than needed for the number of children who live there.” And as with food deserts, quality deserts are most likely to impact vulnerable children from low-income families. There are 13 such quality deserts in Cincinnati, in neighborhoods such as Lower Price Hill, Winton Hills, Avondale, Evanston, and Bond Hill.
By CPS’s count, 41.6 percent of the city’s preschoolers entering kindergarten in the district’s 2015–2016 school year were not on track, according to state standards. “We want to see more of our students coming in kindergarten-ready,” says Walsh.
The Kindergarten Readiness assessment (formally known as Birth Through Kindergarten Entry – Learning and Development Standards) helps educators identify key concepts and skills that children need to develop before the age of 5 to succeed in a kindergarten setting. These include social and emotional development; approaches toward learning (things like attention span and creativity); cognitive knowledge; language and literacy; and motor development. Early experience with these concepts helps students far beyond kindergarten.
The RAND Corporation also studied Cincinnati specifically, and found that “high quality is a common element among preschool programs with the largest effects on school readiness.” According to Vanessa White, implementation project lead for Preschool Promise, quality and equity of access—not just quantity—is perhaps the important part of improving our educational system, and of preparing preschool-aged children for kindergarten and beyond. “Every child deserves a strong start,” White says. “Regardless of what their zip code is and where they go to preschool, they should have that equal footing.”
To that end, CPS has made quality ratings a centerpiece of the Preschool Promise program. Since the passage of Issue 44, Preschool Promise’s mission is two-pronged: to increase access, via tuition assistance, and to increase the quality of existing programs—specifically in low-income neighborhoods—through a five-star state rating system called “Step Up to Quality.” By 2020, any program in Ohio that receives state funding for a preschool must participate in this program and have at least one star. By 2025 they must have three stars. Rating requirements include staff qualifications, community partnerships, and administrative practices.
Issue 44 asked the community for a huge investment in public education, and the leadership at Preschool Promise, United Way, and Cincinnati Public Schools is predicting real results: “By 2020, we want 85 percent of the children in our 10-county region to be kindergarten-ready,” Byrd says. This is a lofty goal considering the current deficits, but program administrators are realistic about their first steps: “We know that quality preschool is one of the best ways to prepare children for kindergarten and to close the gaps that show up early in a child’s education,” Byrd says.
If Preschool Promise pulls it off, we’ll feel the benefits for decades in our public school system and beyond. “Imagine the impact of this, of getting those students ready for kindergarten,” Walsh says. “This can have a lasting effect for getting these kids out of poverty and for the entire community.”
AskPreschoolPromise.org, (513) 447-4CPP (4277)
This story has been updated.