Preschool funding from the feds is stagnant while the need grows

CINCINNATI -- The cry for quality preschool can be heard from the White House to the schoolhouse, as early learning is considered a crucial link to academic and career success. But it has fallen on deaf ears in Congress for another year, leaving more than half of Greater Cincinnati's low-income 3- and 4-year-olds without the means to go to school.

In the long run, advocates say, investing in preschool is cheaper than paying for the remedial classes and jail time that kids who enter kindergarten without basic learning skills often eventually encounter.

But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced that funding for Head Start, the federal preschool program for children from low-income homes, will be essentially flat next school year, rising only 0.78 percent compared to last year.

That leaves advocates like United Way of Greater Cincinnati and the Strive Partnership hitting a brick ceiling in their quest for universal preschool here.

"When we look at the number of poor families living across Ohio, we're dipping our fingers and toes in the lake," said Barbara Haxton, executive director of Ohio Head Start Association in Dayton. "It would take twice as much money as we're getting to make a dent."

Head Start pays primarily for half-day preschool. Some agencies cobble together full-day preschool through state funding, including child care vouchers and some Ohio Pre-K funding.

Ohio lawmakers have eased the shortage modestly by adding $22 million to expand the number of preschool slots funded at $4,000 per child. That paid for 2½ hours a day of preschool for another 2,450 kids statewide in 2013 and 2,940 this year.

But Haxton said we're actually falling further behind in two important ways:

• "Most programs are struggling with fewer actual dollars. I did some math where we compared the cost of living increases increases over the past 10 years to the Consumer Price Index, and  funding is down by 22 percent."

• Ohio's preschool investment is still a fraction of the $100 million the state put into preschool funding under Gov. George Voinovich, a program that was eliminated under Gov. Bob Taft, Haxton said.

United Way, through its Success by Six program, and Strive Partnership through its Preschool Promise , are trying to dramatically increase access to quality preschool programs in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. So far, they haven't found much money to do it.

"It's a slow go. I guess the good news is that the funding is flat and not a reduction," said Stephanie Byrd, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati chapter Success by Six, which pushes for better birth-to-5 education.

She said about half of incoming kindergarten students in Cincinnati Public Schools have not attended preschool, putting them at high risk of not reading at grade level by third grade. Statistics show that students who are behind in third grade are more likely to drop out of high school and, in turn, more likely to be incarcerated, unemployed, or both.

"Working families who earn more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level (more than $29,812 for a family of four this year) are not going to be eligible," Byrd said. "It's forcing families to choose either lower quality preschool or other options not focused on basic skills."

Here's a breakdown of who is covered in Greater Cincinnati:

Hamilton County Educational Service Center  will serve 857 children with $6.9 million
Hamilton County Community Action Agency will serve 1,745 Head Start and 300 Early Head Start kids with $16.5 million.
Butler County ESC will serve 720 Head Start students and 126 Early Head Start with $5.61 million.
• Clermont County's Child Focus will serve 408 Head Start and 132 Early Head Start students in with $4.1 million.
Warren County Community Services will serve 232 Head Start and 76 Early Head Start children with $2.2 million.
Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission will serve 444 kids in Boone, Campbell, Kenton and Pendleton counties – out of an estimated 1,200 eligible children – with its $3.4 million allotment.

"We're just so honored to have the opportunity to provide services of this nature for low-income children," said Florence Tandy, executive director of NKCAC. "Without quality preschool, our children will start school behind."

But does the money cover what is needed?

"It's a drop in the bucket, that's for sure," she said.

The problem is most acute in the city of Cincinnati, which now suffers from the second highest child poverty rate in the country, behind only bankrupt Detroit.

Preschool Promise, led by the Strive Partnership, has set universal preschool as a goal within the city of Cincinnati.

"While our woefully underfunded preschool efforts remain stagnant, child poverty is growing in our

city and so are the mounting inequities that threaten our moral and economic well-being," said Greg Landsman, Strive executive director. 

Byrd said that United Way and other advocates in Cincinnati continue to seek consensus on ways that the community can raise more money to fill in the gaps left by the limited federal and state funding.

"The question is what is that local funding source that is acceptable to the voters? Public-private partnership is reasonable, but it cannot be done on philanthropy alone," she said.

While children fall behind and advocates ponder the right pitch to the right voters, Haxton muses over spending priorities.

"My grandson flies an F-16, which costs around $60 million, I believe. Think of the number of Head Start kids we could serve for the cost of one plane," she said.

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