CINCINNATI – High-quality, universal preschool leads to better high school graduation rates, fewer repeated grades and less need for special education courses.
And while public investment in preschool is expensive, long-term gains in academic success translate to communities getting $2 to $4 back for every dollar taxpayers spend.
Those are some of the conclusions reached in an exhaustive study of large-scale, publicly funded preschool programs in 11 states, plus Boston, Chicago, Tulsa, and the national Head Start program.
RAND Corporation conducted the analysis on behalf of the Cincinnati Business Committee, Cincinnati Regional Business Committee and United Way of Greater Cincinnati to help answer whether Cincinnati voters should invest in Preschool Promise and what kind of bang they'll get for their buck.
Groundwork for Cincinnati's Preschool Push
The ambitious Cincinnati Preschool Promise program would make two years of preschool affordable to all families using a sliding scale based mostly on income, paid for through either a property or payroll tax increase.
The study's bottom line? Preschool is worth the cost, but only if the money goes into high-quality preschools.
"Quality matters. Trying to get halfway to quality is not worth it. You have to get go all the way or it's not worth it," Lynn Karoly, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, told WCPO.
Preschool Promise backers plan to introduce a tax levy on the November ballot. A city of Cincinnati payroll tax increase or a property tax increase for the Cincinnati Public School district – which encompasses some communities outside the city limits – are the final two options being considered.
The group's steering committee plans to finalize the plan in April, according to Greg Landsman, co-convener of Cincinnati Preschool Promise.
"This study revealed what many of us have thought and known for a long time. Preschool works, but it all depends on how you implement it," Landsman said.
Preschool to Lift Kids Out of Poverty
Nearly half of all children in the city of Cincinnati live at or below the poverty line. About 65 percent of children's families have incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced lunches.
Those children, the study shows, would benefit the most from quality preschool.
"A consistent finding across these studies is that high-quality preschool programs, operating at full scale, can produce meaningful gains in school readiness, especially in more-disadvantaged children," the RAND report said.
Landsman and other backers are heartened by the analysis because Preschool Promise will provide incentives for preschool operators to employ certified teachers, keep class sizes small and hit other benchmarks that will earn the schools higher state ratings.
The more stars a preschool earns on Ohio's Step Up To Quality ratings system, the more schools will be paid per student.
One Year or Two?
Skeptics point out other studies that have indicated the benefits of preschool wear off after a few years. Karoly said that those studies have been read too narrowly.
It's true, she said, that standardized test scores in some studies weren't higher among children who went to preschool. But those same students who went to preschool graduated high school at a higher rate, needed fewer special education courses and had fewer incidences of repeating a grade.
"It's important to look at other outcomes that did not indicate fadeout," Karoly said.
RAND will roll out the second part of its analysis sometime in April. The study will provide detailed cost estimates about options still under consideration for the extent of public funding.
"Whether Cincinnati invests in part-day or full-day preschool, there will be positive benefits with the investments. We're looking now at financial implications of each," Karoly said. "For the full-day program, a lot is going to depend on how you use the rest of that full day."
Whether the Cincinnati plan to invest in two full years of preschool is worth double the cost was not fully answered by RAND.
"The general finding from those studies is that there are additional gains from a two-year program, but they do not always produce twice the impact as a one-year program," the report said.
"It may be possible to generate larger gains from an additional year of preschool by strengthening the curriculum and teacher practices to more effectively capitalize on the additional preschool exposure," it said.
Landsman said Cincinnati families would definitely benefit from two years of preschool.
"Two years is better than one. I think there's just not enough data out yet there to say that it's twice as impactful," he said.