CINCINNATI -- Preschool Promise leaders hope to help as many as 2,000 children and their families offset the cost of preschool next school year.
City voters agreed to increase property taxes for the new preschool program when they approved a $48 million annual school levy by a historic margin last fall.
For the next five years, $15 million of that levy will be dedicated every year to expanding preschool access for 3- and 4-year-olds living in the Cincinnati Public School district.
With an August launch date looming, the Preschool Promise Board is still figuring out how that money will be spent, how many kids it will reach and exactly what its mission will be. It also has yet to create its official mission statement, hire a director to run the program or decide a budget for the school year.
As the board faces these key decisions, it’s also struggled to follow Ohio’s open meetings law.
The board, however, does know it plans to spend at least $5 million on direct tuition aid for the city’s children next school year.
Leaders don’t expect kids from all eligible families -- an estimated 6,000 or more -- to sign up for financial aid right away.
“In this first year, we’re going to be just getting our bearings and getting this operation off the ground,” said Stephanie Byrd, the interim director of Preschool Promise. “We want to get children in, and we want to get the program up and running.”
Byrd hopes to see as many as 1,500 kids attending a private preschool through the program by the end of next school year. Another 700 additional children will have access to a Cincinnati Public Schools preschool seat next school year, because CPS agreed to expand preschool as part of the levy’s passage.
If your family is interested in the Preschool Promise program, visit AskPreschoolPromise.org or call 513-762-7234.
Over the course of the five-year levy, Byrd hopes the program will reach 6,000 kids total.
“It’s a huge number that gives me a whole lot of heartburn, especially because we’re at zero right now,” Byrd said.
Throughout the campaign last fall, Preschool Promise supporters never specified exactly how many kids might benefit from the new tax levy. A 2016 study found more than 6,000 Cincinnati kids live in households where the income is under 200 percent of the poverty line, making access to pre-kindergarten education programs difficult, if not impossible.
Parents should be able to start applying for the program in June.
Byrd said Preschool Promise leaders are working to get the word out now about the program. They’re holding parent information nights, regularly updating a Facebook page and plan to pass out fliers at major events in the community for the next few months.
A variety of factors could keep the city’s poorest parents from applying for help to pay for preschool, Byrd said. Some parents might already rely on relatives to care for their kids for free, while others might not have reliable transportation to get their kids to a preschool.
Another big hurdle: Preschool Promise will only pay for nine months of schooling, said Vanessa Freytag, president of 4C for Children. 4C for Children is a local resource and day care advocacy group.
“Working parents are going to have a huge challenge, even with the new system in place,” Freytag said. “If you want your child to be in an educational setting and you can’t afford that, how are you going to afford it if you can only do it for nine months?”
On top of that, there simply aren’t enough quality preschool seats available for all of the kids who might eligible.
That’s one of the biggest challenges Preschool Promise hopes to fix with levy money.
Byrd estimates only 3,000 “quality” day care seats are available in the city. That means if every eligible child applied for the program, thousands could be turned away.
The board determines a preschool’s eligibility based on how many star ratings it’s earned through an Ohio evaluation program called Step Up to Quality. Day cares can earn up to a five-star rating; only preschools with three stars or more are eligible to be part of Preschool Promise.
Experts say the state’s rating process is expensive and time-consuming. To earn stars, for example, day cares must employ actual teachers.
The program isn’t mandatory, so many day cares don’t bother to go through the process because it’s so difficult, Freytag said.
“There are hundreds of steps,” Freytag said. “The Preschool Promise (does) a couple of great things. It’s going to help providers pay for those costs of getting to quality. Providers can’t afford curriculum, they can’t afford teachers that have the right curriculum.”
That’s a problem Preschool Promise hopes to fix by investing $2 million worth of levy funds to help local, private day cares get quality ratings. The money will come in the form of grants or coaching services meant to help the schools move up in the state’s quality rating program and, in turn, get more day cares eligible to participate in Preschool Promise.
By the end of the five-year levy, the board hopes 1,000 more school seats will be available in the city.
“We’ve got a huge issue with a gap in the number of programs that are highly rated, and we have quality deserts because of that,” Byrd said. “We’re really looking at how we improve quality across the city, across the district.”
Some local day cares are looking to hire more teachers thanks to the program.
Because of Preschool Promise, more kids will get to go to full-day preschool through Head Start, a federally funded school program for low-income families.
More than 1,600 of the city’s children use Head Start for preschool. But few of them -- only 180 -- are eligible for a full day. Preschool Promise will help families put their children in for a full day, with financial aid.
“It’ll be good for Head Start,” said Renee Daniel, the Community Action Agency’s project and technical officer for Head Start. “We’ll be able to do more for our families and support them in different ways that we haven’t been able to before.”
The Preschool Promise Board is still working to establish a mission statement, hire employees and hammer out a budget before the program launches in just four months.
The board, which is in the search process, hopes to have an executive director in place by June 30.
At a retreat last week, the Preschool Promise Board -- made up of 15 members appointed by the United Way, Cincinnati Public Schools and Cincinnati Preschool Promise -- grappled with how to measure success for children who go through the program.
The biggest debate: Should the program measure how ready kids are for kindergarten or third grade?
The board also has struggled to adhere to state open meeting requirements:
- At a Wednesday, April 12 meeting, the board went into executive session without providing a reason. A WCPO reporter present at the meeting pressed for an explanation, but none was ever given.
- The board never notified the public about a Thursday, April 20 meeting billed as a “board retreat” held at an office building in Norwood.
When WCPO showed up at the April 20 meeting, a Preschool Promise official asked who invited the reporter and was advised Preschool Promise officials were consulting with an attorney to determine whether the meeting needed to be held in open session. After debate, the reporter was admitted. Preschool Promise Board Chairman and Xavier University President Michael Graham said the meeting would be opened, although the board intended for “the whole thing” to be in executive session.
Graham and Byrd both said the board is new and still learning the rules of open records and meeting laws. Both vowed that the board, which was formed in January, would go through a training session to better learn the rules.
But the state lays out all those rules in a manual that can easily be accessed online, said Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati media and open records lawyer.
Greiner said the law clearly stipulates public boards must give notice before a majority meets and very specific reasons must be given before that board meets in executive session.
“It’s concerning,” Greiner said of the board’s meetings. “There are plenty of resources … it shouldn’t be a real mystery. I hope they’ll use this as a learning tool going forward."