CINCINNATI -- Backers of near-universal preschool in Cincinnati would need to create as many as 3,900 new quality seats to serve the city's preschool population if the school levy passes in November.
That leaves Cincinnati Public Schools and the many private providers a huge gap to fill to serve all the families who opt for one or two years of preschool for their children, according to a study undertaken by Rand Corp.
An analysis of the current preschool system in the city found that just 45 percent of preschool slots -- about 3,270 -- were in preschools that earned three stars or higher on Ohio's Step Up To Quality scale.
The exact number is impossible to determine with so many unknowns, especially not knowing how many families will opt in to the subsidized preschool program. But backers know they'll have to dramatically increase supply to meet the demand.
"An immediate priority for the Preschool Promise and other Cincinnati stakeholders would be to generate a strategic plan for quality improvement," the researchers concluded.
Cincinnati Business Committee and United Way of Greater Cincinnati paid for the Rand report to help maximize the return on the $15 million annual investment that would be part of a $48 million CPS school levy. The preschool funding would go toward CPS and private and nonprofit schools.
Rand researchers said the lack of quality seats was worst in some low-income neighborhoods -- among the children who educators believe would benefit most from two years of effective preschool.
"The connection between preschool and lifting children out of poverty is a perfect match," said Stephanie Byrd, executive director at United Way's Success by 6 program.
The case for publicly funded preschool
Many studies have found that preschools staffed with certified teachers with good teaching material set children on a path to academic, professional and personal life success compared to children who don't have the same preschool opportunity.
Children who are prepared for kindergarten with age-appropriate social skills, hand-eye coordination and verbal skills, among others, are far more likely to be reading at grade level by third grade.
Good readers in third grade are far more likely to graduate from high school, go to college or make a living wage and avoid a host of ills like drug abuse, committing crimes and even making poor health decisions.
The huge undertaking will be managed by CPS; an outside group it hires; and a new nonprofit that the outside group creates.
United Way poised to step up
All signs point toward United Way of Greater Cincinnati being that outside group since it was the only one to apply by the Aug. 19 deadline.
If the school board approves its application, United Way would start working on getting more schools to three stars or more as early as January 2017.
It has a lot of targets, with 45 percent of current preschool seats operated by centers that have opted not to be rated at all by the state and another 10 percent rated two stars or lower.
Part of the $15 million would be pumped into a host of efforts to upgrade preschools, including teacher training, buying new learning materials and assisting schools with the evaluation process.
"It will be a ramp up, and it doesn't happen overnight," Byrd said.
The school district wants only to fund schools that receive three or more stars, and Byrd hopes expansion efforts keep pace with demand that may grow each year as more families learn about the subsidy program.
She hopes to minimize the need for busing preschoolers by upgrading existing providers or recruiting new ones in the neighborhoods that lack quality programs within walking distance.
"Sleepless nights are becoming more frequent because of problems like that," Byrd said.
Subsidies for low-income and middle-income families
CPS wants the $15 million to be layered on top of existing Head Start and state funds to provide tuition-free preschool for all families that earn 200 percent or less of the federal poverty income level.
Families that make two to five times the federal poverty income would receive a 50 percent subsidy, and families making 300 percent to 500 percent -- middle-income earners -- would get 20 percent.
High-income families making five times or more than the poverty level would receive a 5 percent discount.
While the trusted entity and its new nonprofit partner work on upgrading private preschools, CPS will try to further expand its own preschool capacity.
The school district added 400 preschool seats this year to provide for more than 1,500 preschoolers. All of CPS preschools achieve five stars, Ohio's highest ranking.
Byrd is adamant that the levy is crucial to breaking children out of the cycle of poverty that grips their families and to keep Cincinnati's economic fortunes rising.
"We have a huge opportunity with preschool," she said. "The downside is if we don't pass the levy, the picture is so much more bleak at a time when we're on the rise. I'm hopeful that we're going to make this happen."