A hearing on Wednesday in the Ohio Senate Finance Education Subcommittee on early childhood education and the state budget was in equal parts encouraging and disturbing. The encouragement springs from what is known about childhood development and the tools and resources — all at hand — that can be deployed to enhance learning and development for every child. The concern is that Ohio should be doing more than it is doing, and faster, given the long-term advantages of acting on what is known.
Much of the encouragement resides in the pledge by state Sen. Peggy Lehner, co-chair of the subcommittee, to find an extra $100 million for early learning programs in the proposed $61 billion biennial budget.
Research indicates that 90 percent of brain development occurs within the first five years of life, and that the quality and variety of experiences stimulate the brain and facilitate early learning. Yet James Zimmerman, a former Macy’s executive, noted the misplaced priorities: 90 percent of public spending on education occurs after age 5.
Also known is that children who live in poverty frequently lack consistent exposure to essential learning experiences. Thus, they begin to lag their peers very early in critical skills such as language use and working with numbers. Kindergarten-readiness data from the Ohio Department of Education reveal a gap of 25 to 30 percentage points in achievement between low-income preschoolers and their peers, a difference also reflected in third-grade reading competence.
State data show Ohio has close to 295,000 3- and 4-year-olds. About 138,000 of the toddlers live in poverty. Head Start serves about 39,000, the federally funded programs varying in quality. Ohio funds child care for 43,000 toddlers. But the state serves just a tiny fraction of disadvantaged toddlers who need access to high-quality educational services: 5,700 in public preschools and about 23,000 more in special education preschools.
Gov. John Kasich’s budget plan proposed boosting preschool funding by $2 million, to add 500 more preschool spots. That would raise enrollment to a grand 6,200. The House budget did better but not by much. It included $5 million for the Department of Education to contract for services to 2,200 toddlers. Sen. Lehner raised a pertinent question, asking “whether or not the time has come that Ohio steps up and starts to make a very firm commitment not only to improving quality but to making sure our children have access to it.” Clearly, $100 million for early education is a start but it hardly is enough for the access 138,000 children need to keep up with their peers.