CINCINNATI - In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama issued a call to action that "every single child in America" should have high-quality early-childhood education.
Greater Cincinnati is way ahead of him.
Even before the president's speech Tuesday, those leading the charge to improve education for the Tri-State's children had made early childhood education a top priority for 2013.
"As we enter 2013, there's probably no bigger priority for the Strive Partnership," said Greg Landsman, executive director of the partnership, which works to help children succeed from the time they're babies until they're grown and ready to work.
"We are in the best possible position nationally to heed this pretty remarkable call to action."
Strive has been working closely with Success By Six, an early childhood education program of the United Way of Cincinnati, to expand the region's quality preschool offerings.
Both local programs have gotten national attention for their strong results. And advocates would like to see increased funding for their work so they can reach more children.
"They're just not able to serve as many children as they could if they had more funding," said Susan Ingmire, president of Cincinnati-based Ignite Philanthropy Advisors. "That is one of those things that quantifiable – it's going to have tremendous impact on children as they mature into adults."
Research clearly shows a child's brain is 90 percent developed by the age of 5, Landsman said. That makes those early years critically important to ensuring that children are ready for school, he said.
Mike Hammons, director of advocacy for Children Inc. in Covington, Ky., praised the president's proposal to expand high-quality preschool, noting that studies have repeatedly pointed up the value of high-quality early-childhood education.
"Studies have clearly demonstrated that high-quality early childhood programs return $7 for every dollar spent," said Hammons, whose agency operates early childhood centers that score among the highest ratings on the state's quality rating system.
"James Heckman, Nobel Laureate Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago has spent years examining the long term impact of early childhood programs and says that investing in them produces a better annual return than the stock market. He points out however that that is only true for high-quality programs," Hammons said.
But good preschool doesn't come cheap.
The average cost of high-quality preschool is anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 per year, Landsman said. Still, he said, that's far less expensive than the $12,000 to $13,000 per year it costs to remediate children that arrive at school unprepared.
Strive staff is working with Success by Six to talk with public officials locally and in Columbus to build support for increasing early childhood funding, Landsman said. Ultimately, they'll be talking with Kentucky officials in Frankfort, too.
The goal is to expand quality preschool programs in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana across United Way of Greater Cincinnati's entire footprint, said Stephanie Byrd, executive director of Success by Six. But all three states have different regulations, which presents a challenge.
Other challenges include educating parents and the public about the importance of quality preschool and making people aware of the options available, Byrd said. And, of course, there's the money.
"There's not enough money being infused into the system to raise the overall level of quality," Byrd said. "It's getting better. But a lot more needs to be done."
Landsman said that, in his view, this effort is every bit as critical to the region's economic health as building a replacement for the functionally obsolete Brent Spence Bridge. That's because, to be competitive, the region needs to build what he calls "the nation's most robust talent pipeline."
"We're going to have to, like the bridge, hope that this becomes real and we have federal and state support," he said. "But if we want to get it done, we're going to have to get it done locally. And we're going to have to start now."
But while the price tag for a new bridge is a couple billion dollars, Landsman said a few million would cover the cost of preschool for the region's children who don't have access to it now.
"We can't wait. And if we don't do it, we can't be competitive," he said. "So it goes back to the big questions: how creative can we be without going to the ballot? Who's in? And how big a priority is this going to be for the community?"