Preschool advocates say state funding cut tolerable

Local preschool advocates are relieved that early childhood education funding stayed relatively stable in a state budget that saw many agencies’ funding get cut.

“I would say there’s a minor reduction, but when you consider the depth and breadth of the revenue shortfall the legislature was dealing with, we fared very well, to be able to maintain the existing programs,” said Shannon Jones, former state senator and current executive director of Groundwork Ohio, a nonprofit focused on early childhood issues.

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Ohio had increased several early childhood funding items in recent years, after national research showed early interventions having a positive impact on eventual school performance.

Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Learn to Earn Dayton, cited one positive change in the new budget. Preschool and certain childcare providers can now apply to use any leftover state funding to serve eligible 3-year-olds, once they’ve taken care of their 4-year-olds.

Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said the 3 vs. 4-year-old issue was a problem in the last budget, as millions of dollars in funding that had been approved went unused.

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“It was a good compromise,” Lightcap said. “We can still prioritize 4-year-olds, but also be able to serve many 3-year-olds. And we know our children will benefit from supports from birth to age 5.”

The main items specifically labeled “early childhood education” in the state budget are $68.1 million per year for the Ohio Department of Education and $20 million per year for the Department of Job and Family Services.

But Jones said funding comes in many different areas of the budget, including publicly funded child care and temporary assistance for needy families, and totals nearly $700 million. She said the total cut in this budget was $11.1 million, or 1 to 2 percent.

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Lehner and Lightcap said a Senate amendment to the budget restored $5 million over two years that had been slated to be cut.

Jones said the state faces the challenge of building an early childhood education system nearly from the ground up, whereas K-12 education is guaranteed available and merely gets annual tweaks.

Lightcap gave the example of lacking enough openings in high-quality preschools to serve the families who want it. Lehner talked about access problems, such as too many half-day openings and not enough full-day opportunities, as families with two working parents turn down the half-day programs.

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By 2020, all preschool providers will have to go through the state’s Step Up to Quality rating process to qualify for state money, and by 2025, those centers will have to earn a 3-star or better rating to get funding.

Jones said that means an increase in costs, as providers have to buy better curriculum and materials, pay for training, and then compensate better-qualified teachers. But some centers are not being funded accurately.

“The state reimbursement rate (for preschool and child care providers) was not addressed in the budget,” Jones said. “That’s a concern going forward, and we have to address those structural issues.”

Jones said the state’s own recent validation study showed that investments in curriculum, high-quality teachers and appropriate staffing ratios resulted in better educational outcomes for children.

Now the state, individual cities like Dayton, and preschool advocates are working to make more high-quality early childhood opportunities available for kids. Jones said it’s a funding issue, a staffing issue, and a parent awareness issue. Lehner agreed.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Lehner said. “My biggest concern is that the law requires us to only spend money on star-rated programs starting in 2020, and we do not have enough star-rated programs to meet the demand. That is a major challenge over the next couple of years, or we’re not going to be able to find seats to put kids in even if we have the money.”

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