CINCINNATI – Negotiations took months, but backers of taxpayer-funded, near-universal preschool are rallying behind a plan they say fairly funds public and private preschool classrooms and pays teachers a living wage.
The plan calls for Cincinnati Public Schools to select an experienced private organization – a "trusted entity" – to handle the $15 million preschool program.
Turning the money over to that group would put distance between the school district, which will compete for students with a host of private preschool operators, and the budget.
The trusted entity, in turn, will create a new nonprofit organization that will handle the daily operations of reimbursing preschool operators and a host of other responsibilities like making sure preschools' lesson plans align with Ohio's K-12 curriculum.
The preschool expansion has been championed for several years by Cincinnati Preschool Promise and will be funded through a $48 million CPS tax levy if voters approve it in the fall. To make sure both have strong oversight of the money, a 15-member board of trustees will govern the new nonprofit group.
CPS, Preschool Promise and the trusted entity will each select five board members.
"I think it's the best plan that we can imagine," said the Rev. Troy Jackson, executive director of the multi-faith AMOS Project coalition.
He said the structure reflects the reality that CPS runs excellent preschool classrooms, but doesn't have the capacity to meet all the demand.
"We also know that there are a lot of home-based and center-based preschools that are growing in quality. I think it strikes the balance very well," Jackson said.
AMOS Project pushed hard for assurances that the goal of lifting children out of poverty through education wouldn't be accomplished by paying teachers poverty-level wages at private schools.
To that end, the plan sets up a Workforce Development Council, appointed by CPS and working with the new nonprofit. The council will work to ensure wage parity and professional development for teachers and aides.
CPS Board President Ericka Copeland-Dansby said the structure is a first nationally and may be emulated when others expand preschool.
"The taxpayer can see this as a best practice where you see entities coming together caring about equitable access to early education," she said.
By delegating responsibility to a private entity, CPS can also stretch public dollars farther. The trusted entity will have the ability to conduct private fundraising that could be used to increase tuition subsidies and teacher training.
Greg Landsman, strategic advisor to Cincinnati Preschool Promise, said the plan ensures " the level of accountability and transparency that taxpayers expect."
"This is the power of the kind of public-private partnerships that we talk about — this is first-in-the-nation policy, and it will change the lives of our children, make it easier to raise a family in Cincinnati, and strengthen our city for decades," he said.
With a little more than three months until Election Day, the preschool coalition still has to hash out a formula that details how much money families of various incomes will receive. Cincinnati Preschool Promise's original goal was filling in all the gaps for families making 200 percent of the federal poverty wage or less to make preschool free for their children.
The group also wanted to providing a subsidy for all other interested families that made more money, implementing a sliding scale, with high earners receiving the smallest subsidy.
The last phase of an in-depth study conducted by the Rand Corporation will lay out recommendations and options on the best way to disburse the $15 million by income and with other variables like financial incentives for families to choose the highest-rated preschools.
Next Big Question
The CPS board is expected to formally approve the plan Tuesday during a special meeting. The board will issue a Request for Proposals to become the Trusted Entity to get the ball rolling.
Stephanie Byrd, executive director of Success By 6 at United Way of Greater Cincinnati, said there are a number of organizations in Greater Cincinnati that have the experience and capacity to become the CPS partner.
She said United Way has not delved into directly administering a program, and she can't say whether the organization might break precedent until CPS lays out its detailed requirements in the request for proposals.
Regardless, her organization will continue pushing for universal preschool in keeping with its years-long commitment to preparing young children for kindergarten to improve their chances for academic and career success.
"The short- and long-term benefit (of quality preschool) is clear. We'll be spending a lot of time between now an November laying out our case," Byrd said. "I'm excited about it."