The futures of more children in Ohio will be limited significantly, and the state will be the poorer for it, if lawmakers do not invest aggressively now to counter the wide-ranging effects of increased poverty in the state. The reasons to increase funding for early education, by as much as if not more than $100 million of the $400 million uncommitted state revenue — grow stronger.
The latest survey to raise a warning flag is the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book released last week. Between 2007 and 2011, the data show the percentage of Ohio children living in poverty has increased from 19 percent to 24 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of children living in families where neither parent has a full-time, year-round job has risen from 28 percent to 33 percent.
Families contending with severe financial pressures rarely can afford the expense of high quality preschools and child care, which provide essential access to stimulating experiences and instruction. The new survey reports that 55 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds were not enrolled in preschool in 2009-11. The National Institute of Early Education Research, in its “The State of Preschool 2012” earlier this year, reported that Ohio’s public preschools enrolled a mere 1 percent of 3-year-olds and 2 percent of 4-year-olds.
Such low rates of enrollment contribute to achievement gaps that require longer intervention and more resources to narrow as children try to make it in school. Ohio’s education leaders are aware, from analyses of Kindergarten Readiness Assessment data, of a 25 to 30 percentage-point difference in achievement between disadvantaged children and their peers even before they start kindergarten. Equally well understood, the returns are higher when ensuring children a strong start in preschool than investing later, for example, in adult literacy programs, to mitigate the effects of a poor early learning environment. Early learning is a state priority, and it deserves priority funding.