Niiya Isichei’s 3-year-old daughter, Chloe, is no longer among the 135 children on a waiting list for Irma A. Jones Preschool.
She got in last year, but not before the preschool and infancy center, like other programs across the state, suffered state funding cuts that have taken a toll on Ohio’s disadvantaged children. To offset those cuts, the Arlington Street school increased classroom sizes to reduce the number of layoffs, which inevitably undermine quality.
“The kids aren’t getting as much individual attention,” said Danielle Bentley, director of Irma A. Jones Preschool. State aid last year dropped from $50,000 a month to $28,000. “We actually had to increase students in order to counteract what was happening.”
The cuts eventually led to three layoffs and swelling class sizes, and it didn’t take an economist or an administrator to notice the impact.
“My little one, she sensed it,” Isichei said, “Because she grew a relationship with one of the student assistant teachers who was laid off.”
Ohio ranking plunges
Cutting programs for disadvantaged preschoolers is often cited as one of the most devastating blows to children and in the end costs taxpayers more.
For decades, study after study has shown that early education — teaching a child specific skills before reaching kindergarten — is the most significant factor in reducing the need for costly intervention in later years.
The “shortsighted and difficult-to-reverse” action taken by state leaders resulted in Ohio dropping from 19th to 37th out of 40 states in enrolling prekindergarten students, according to an April report released by the National Institute for Early Education Research (10 states have no programs).
Measured in terms of spending per pupil, Ohio plunged 12 spots from sixth highest to 18th, even as it amassed more than $1 billion in a rainy-day fund. Rather than spend that, the legislature and governor cut taxes and made it more difficult for school districts to raise money on their own.
“Ohio is an example of a state that lost much of the ground it had gained toward providing quality state-funded preschool over the decade,” the institute’s report stated.
Ohio enrolls one-quarter as many students in state-funded preschool as it did in 2008, and spends half as much on each child who does find a seat in a preschool classroom.
Only 3,564 of Ohio’s nearly 150,000 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs in the 2011-12 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research report.
That’s 2.4 percent, compared with 79 percent in Florida, 74 percent in Oklahoma, 61 percent in West Virginia, 30 percent in Kentucky, 14 percent in Pennsylvania and even 6 percent in Alabama.
The timing of the cuts couldn’t have been worse for families who needed it most.
“The state made their cuts at the same time that we were dealing with the recession. Plus I had parents who had gotten behind on payments,” Bentley, at the Irma A. Jones school, said.
There are some in the state legislature who recognize the backward momentum.
Many experts conservatively estimate that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, there is a savings of $6 or more to the public later on.
“These small investments made early, and maintained, can pay off far better than far larger costs [over] the lifetime of children,” said Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, the ranking minority leader on the Senate Education Committee. “And I’m not simply talking about schooling. I’m talking about law enforcement and corrections and all of the things that can go wrong in a child’s life.”
Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, chairs the Senate Education Committee and agrees.
“It’s one of the few programs out there that we have evidence actually saves money,” she said. “I think as that information is shared with more and more legislators and becomes more widely known, the political will to do this will be based not just on the needs of the child, but on the overall economic benefits to the state.”
But while the two leaders on the Senate Education Committee are in agreement, that doesn’t ensure action.
Sawyer says he and the other nine Senate Democrats would need the help of at least seven Republican colleagues to act.
“I don’t envision that as being any problem at all,” Lehner said. “I expect to have [all] 23 Republicans backing it. Now, obviously we have to identify where the money is coming from. And there’s always the possibility that someone’s going to say, ‘We don’t have the money. Where are you taking it from?’ ”
Gutting early childhood education programs can be felt in five-year increments as children are born and reach school age. Because of the roller-coaster funding ride, a child born in the late 1990s or the mid-2000s had a four-times greater chance of attending state-funded preschool than a post-recession baby reaching school age today.
State allocations for early childhood education peaked in 2009, and enrollment in preschool programs surged.
That’s when Isichei became pregnant with Chloe, her only daughter. The 28-year-old single mother had been living a life after high school that she never wanted for her daughter.
“I never returned to school until I had Chloe. But in the midst of that, I saw and experienced the struggle,” she said.
She lost her $15-an-hour job at an Atlanta airport. She struggled to pay rent and fell behind on bills.
“You feel like you’re at your rope’s end.”
Isichei reluctantly moved back to Akron, where she joined dozens of other parents on a waiting list to enroll their children in preschool.
She wanted a high-quality early education for her daughter, not a “baby-sitting” service.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services provides preschool support for disadvantaged families, but there are strings.
“This is a blessing,” Isichei said of the state funding she receives to pay the $145-a-week tab for preschool. Some preschool practitioners price the average weekly cost of full-day preschool at about $200.
Isichei works two jobs and attends the University of Akron full time to remain eligible for assistance.
“I don’t see how some people [can do it],” she said. “I mean, I can only speak for myself. I knew that I didn’t want to abuse the opportunity. And I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity either because it helps me and my baby and our future.”
Eligibility for Ohio’s Early Learning Initiative program, which provided full-time kindergarten for roughly 13,000 children, was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland amid funding cuts made to the state budget in 2009.
As federal stimulus dollars directed to education came to an end, Strickland and the Republican-controlled legislature slashed funding for early childhood education by nearly a third in 2010.
In the new budget approved in June, funding will be restored in 2015 to pre-recession levels, but far too late for children who have moved into the education system since the cuts in 2009.
Members of the Senate Education Committee had asked for more.
Lehner asked for $100 million in additional funding, and Sawyer asked for the entire state surplus, nearly $300 million at the time.
The funding would have helped statewide initiatives such as the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, a program that begins with early education and is estimated to cost more than $100 million. Additional funding also would have expanded part-time kindergarten programs and access to preschool for children in poverty.
The end result of the budget deliberations produced a $32.7 million increase over the next two years.
“That was a significant increase,” Lehner said. “It’s nowhere near what we need, but it’s pretty significant.”
Ohio also has made progress in measuring quality with a $75 million federal Race to the Top grant. Its child-care and education rating system helps identify the best use of state dollars.
“So much of what we have done in the past has been funding baby-sitting services,” Lehner said.
The challenge for legislators, said Rob Fischer, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, is to look beyond their term-limited political careers.
“The payoff is not in current election cycles,” Fischer said. “It’s hard to find the leaders who are wiling to stake their careers on something that is not going to pay off in their term.”
The key is in the finance committees.
Rep. Ron Amstutz (R-Wooster), chair of the House Finance Committee, acknowledged bipartisan support for early childhood education. He said there has to be quality, accountability and parental involvement.
“We’ve got to be able to invest longer term and stay with programs for decades, certainly more than a year at a time,” Amstutz said. “Stop-and-go funding is never good for quality programming. I mean never. So we don’t want that to happen if we can avoid it. But we don’t know what the future holds economically for our state.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.