Public preschool findings a mixed bag

Should Ohioans worry that recent cuts to early childhood education might widen the preschool access gap between Ohio and other states? Yes, according to a new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. But state leaders can remedy this problem by enacting smart changes to early learning programs in the next budget. 

The 2009 State Preschool Yearbook, the seventh annual survey of state-funded prekindergarten programs across the country, gives Ohio less than impressive scores, compared to peer states, and follows an October 2009 PreK Now report that lambasted the Buckeye State for cutting preschool programming by $11.5 million.

According to NIEER’s yearbook, Ohio ranks 30th among states in the number of four-year-olds enrolled in public preschool, with eight percent of them in state-funded programs, and 10th for three-year-olds, with five percent of them attending public preschool. The programs themselves don’t get high marks for quality -- Ohio’s two primary preschool programs met only three and five (out of 10) quality standards. Nonetheless, we are spending a lot on preschool -- Ohio’s state spending per child of $6,904 far exceeded the national average of $4,143.

Although diminished access to early learning opportunities surely warrants concern (the 2009 PreK Now report estimated 12,000 fewer low-income children would be served as a result of the cuts), the NIEER ranking alone isn’t cause for alarm. Ohio ranks lower than many states for four-year-old access in large part because other states have mandated universal preschool programs. Among three-year-olds, Ohio ranks better than the majority of its peers. A more important inquiry is to what extent do Ohio’s low-income three- and four-year-olds have access to preschool?

NIEER laments that this year’s survey “confirmed [their] worries about the effects of the recession on state pre-k.” NIEER says Gov. Strickland’s decision during the last budget cycle to discontinue the Early Learning Initiative (ELI, the Ohio preschool program ranking highest according to NIEER’s indicators, and that aligns preschool with K-12 state academic standards) was unfortunate, and calls for restoring this program in the next state budget.

Still, reports such as these should be read carefully. Preschool advocates often evaluate and rank states based on universal access, but observers must keep two things in mind. First, early learning opportunities hold the most promise for low-income children. Second, Ohio (along with most states) is facing further budget cuts and must make extraordinarily difficult spending trade-offs (evidenced by the fact that Gov. Strickland, an early childhood advocate, cut ELI).

Looking ahead to the next budget, Ohio would do well to reexamine the evidence-based model’s all-day kindergarten mandate, reevaluate preschool cuts, and consider restoring targeted funding for both preschool and all-day K for the kids who would benefit from it the most.

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