Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Fitz Gerald recently announced his plan to make pre-kindergarten available to all of Ohio’s 4-year-olds if he is elected in November.
The plan is based on a $500 million to $600 million roll-out of public funds out of the state’s $62 billion budget to expand and create high-quality pre-K (also called preschool) programs in Ohio. Proponents say it would combat what has been called Ohio’s failure in early childhood education, citing only 2 percent of eligible children that are enrolled in state-funded preschool and low scores for quality standards.
The spending would include new guidelines to reduce class sizes, require newly-hired pre-K teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees and both expand existing pre-K programs while creating new ones, all under the concept of local autonomy.
“This is not something that would be mandatory; it’s not a mandate coming down on local schools,” said Lauren Hitt, campaign spokeswoman for Fitz Gerald. “It’s meant to fill the gap for families that want to put their children in pre-K but cannot because of tuition.”
Hitt said the concept is to foster partnerships between schools, including representation from organizations like Head Start, to use state funding to increase availability in pre-existing programs while creating new opportunities for areas to form pre-k programs, all while improving quality.
This could help expand both publicly funded programs as well as independent ones, like the YMCA or schools run out of churches.
“We focus so much on accountability without providing the resources for kids to be able to be successful, so I like the idea of investing on the front end and giving kids a chance,” said Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany.
The plan is to cover the gap of about 90,000 4-year-olds in Ohio left out of preschool due to expense, capacity issues or because they do not qualify for state-subsidized funding.
The plan follows the guidelines set forth by the National Institute of Early Education Standards’ list of high-quality benchmarks.
By the 2018-2019 school year, Fitzgerald plans to have preschool class limits down to 20 from 28, and require all pre-K teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees.
Currently, many preschool instructors hold lower forms of education, like certification in early childhood or associate degrees.
The national average of preschool-eligible children enrolled in state-funded programs is 28 percent, but in Ohio it is at 2 percent.
In Washington County, public schools do not have their own universal pre-existing preschool programs built into the K-8 structure, but Hitt said this plan would allow Head Start and separate preschool programs to have the option to expand, and would allow public schools to create their programs if they want to.
“It’s a money issue, and it takes funding, but I do think it’s a wonderful idea because everyone deserves preschool,” said Harry Fleming, superintendent of Marietta City Schools. “The number of kids we have on free and reduced lunch is ever-increasing, which means the number of those in the at-risk population is also increasing, and preschool can make a difference.”
In Washington County, under the service of the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center, preschool housed in buildings like Harmar Elementary, Warren Elementary and Newport Elementary offers programs that are state-subsidized to target what are considered “atypical” students with special educational needs.
“Its real purpose is to exist for atypical students, but to mix with typical students to help with socialization,” said Bill Wotring, principal of New Matamoras Elementary.
Wotring said those types of preschools serve a small sublet of the population because of its target for unique needs, but recognized that a program like universal pre-k could expand classroom space and availability to include more students.
Under the Kasich administration Ohio recently alloted $12 million to add about 2,940 children into state-funded programs, and officials have argued that the governor has already done extensive work to expand access.
“By fiscal year 2014, Ohio will invest more than $874 million to serve nearly 153,000 children in pre-K programming,” said Chris Schrimpf, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party. “If that isn’t enough, how much does Ed want to invest in pre-K?”
Republicans noted that the governor has already worked at pre-K expansion and increased quality standards through policies like the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, and that Fitzgerald’s argument does not include programs funded through local agencies funded by the state.
“Glaringly, his policy proposal lacks one major component, how will Ed pay for this plan and over $1.5 billion in other spending he has already proposed?” Schrimpf said.
Fitzgerald argued that with Ohio’s $62 billion budget, that there should be plenty of room to invest more in pre-k programs.
Phillips also argued that the plan is about expanding opportunities, not forcing something upon parents and schools.
“This is something that parents need to decide, but just having those opportunities available makes a difference,” she said. “It could make a phenomenal difference to students, especially when you look at kids who may not have started from the same place.”
Fitzgerald’s campaign cites a study by Politifact that found that for every $1 invested in pre-K and Head Start programs, there is a $5 to $7 rate of return to the economy for students getting better jobs, staying out of prisons and not relying as heavily on state assistance.
“(Pre-K) has so many social and educational benefits to children,” said Rachel Shipley, coordinator of Head Start for Washington-Morgan Community Action. “It’s being able to get along with others, to follow instructions, follow rules, and to learn routines.”
Shipley said she completely supports the idea of the state helping to make programs like Head Start and pre-K more available.
“I think anytime we look at expanding it, it’s a good idea,” she said.
Pioneer Preschool in Marietta is licensed by the Ohio Department of Education, but is run with its own funds.
“We are considered a public preschool, and we have tried to keep spots open for subsidy families,” said director and teacher Judy Peoples. “We want to be able to provide those families that are struggling with the same opportunity.”
Peoples said unfortunately, a parent who was tricking the subsidy system left the issue in the balance.
“When you’re a tuition-based program, you are a business,” she said. “I like the idea of the smaller class sizes, but we have to pay the bills, too.”
Pioneer Preschool employs two teachers, including Peoples, for four separate 24-person classes, and tuition ranges from $75 to $185 per month, depending on the frequency of classes and the age.
Peoples herself holds a bachelor’s degree, while her fellow teacher holds an associate degree, both with several decades of experience between them.
“We would of course like to give them more individual attention, especially the younger ones who are being separated from mom and dad and it’s their first experience everywhere else,” Peoples said.
Hitt said if elected, Fitzgerald plans on making “Pre-K All the Way” one of his first policy goals into 2015.