Ohio Needs Greater Investment in Quality Preschool

Preschool children in a classroom for story time.

Early education is vital to children’s development. The benefits are well known: they include better language, math, cognitive thinking, and social skills, and last well into school. Early care and education also strengthens the financial stability of families by enabling parents to work. Parents of young children often use preschool and childcare interchangeably. Good programs thus serve as both educational investments in the future, and community infrastructure today.

High quality preschool helps children get ready for school. Youngstown City Schools took a great step forward this past December by expanding their part-time preschool to a full day. Youngstown preschools are free, serve three-to-five-year-olds; and are top rated under the state’s Step Up To Quality program, with some classrooms still awaiting assessment.

Yet not all Valley communities offer free full-day preschools, and limited hours leave many families turning to childcare centers or homes. Public preschools in Trumbull County served only about 13 percent of eligible children; Mahoning County 18 percent. Warren City Schools earned high marks, offering both full and half day options for families. Center-based programs range in quality, and while some are excellent, they tend to be the ones with limited hours, wait-lists, and price tags too high for public childcare recipients. In-home childcares are most flexible, but with few participating in the Step Up To Quality program, and many foregoing licensure altogether, they lack oversight and educational value varies widely.

Too many Mahoning Valley children lack access to a safe, high-quality program. Finding one that both fosters learning and offers hours that let parents work is a special challenge. Communities throughout the Valley are making strides, but work is needed to boost quality across all preschool types. We also need to ensure access to all families by locating schools close to home, adding wraparound childcare, and investing adequate public resources.

Step Up To Quality is the state’s primary measure of program quality. The state rates centers, schools, and a handful of homes. Well-trained teachers, good curriculum, and small class sizes earn good ratings. To boost quality, the state mandated participation for public preschools last June and for centers receiving public funds by 2020.

Today, less than half of Mahoning Valley preschools participate in Step Up To Quality, and just 22 percent are considered “high quality,” with a 3+ star rating. More troubling, in health and safety inspections conducted through February 2016, fifteen of 34 Mahoning County centers had serious risk violations.

Yet just as the state pushes to mandate higher quality, low reimbursement rates are causing some centers to drop out of the program, still voluntary for now. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that the state pay a rate high enough to cover 75 percent of programs. Yet Ohio reimburses at a rate so low that less than a third of programs are affordable to families on subsidized care.

Childcare and preschool are too expensive for many families. For a family that lacks a public preschool or relies on a center or home to meet childcare needs, the median cost is $9,370 a year for a single child in Trumbull County, and $7,550 in Mahoning County, where families earn less: a fifth of the family budget in both cases.

These costs put preschool with childcare out of reach even for many middle-income families, leaving them to turn to public childcare assistance. There a complex web of rules threatens continued access. Families earning up to three times the poverty level can qualify, but only if they first received assistance when they were below 130 percent of poverty, and kept it without interruption as their incomes grew.

Not only do families struggle under the current funding model: programs do too. Staffing enough skilled, stable teachers so that young children get quality care is expensive. Stable relationships with their teachers are vital for children, especially those most at-risk due to poverty at home. Yet teacher turnover rates average 27 percent in private centers. Investment in staff makes a big difference: Head Start teachers earn 50 percent more nationwide, and have turnover rates of just ten percent. Center-based preschool teachers earn less than 97 percent of all Ohio workers. These teachers often struggle with poverty themselves.

Bridging the gap means deeper investments in childcare and preschool. Public and all-day preschools are a great step. Better infrastructure must be built to reach more kids, and a push – with funding – to bring all programs into the quality rating system must be made. Funding should be aligned for preschool and childcare programs, and the state must increase reimbursement levels. Governor Kasich’s proposed state budget raises spending by just 3.1 percent over the next two years, likely too little to keep pace with inflation. Teachers and communities are doing their best, and making great strides to bring preschool to all Mahoning Valley children. Now it’s time for the state to do its part too.