Local Politics: The importance of universal pre-kindergarten

Michael Curtin

A newborn's unfinished brain has nearly 100 billion neurons, ready to be developed and connected.

“All need to build connections with each other. It happens through experiences. No experience, no connections,” explained Laura Justice, distinguished professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University, and editor-in-chief ofEarly Childhood Research Quarterly.

Justice is on the front lines of a global effort to educate citizens, elected officials and philanthropists on the compelling research on children's brains, and the resulting urgency to provide high-quality, universal preschool opportunities.

After six years, Justice said, the brain begins to prune the undeveloped neural connections. Deprived of cognitively stimulating experiences, a child's intellectual potential is compromised. Kids who enter kindergarten behind spend their lives trying to catch up.

The United States lags other nations in this effort, and Ohio is a laggard among the states.

On the morning of Sept. 9, Justice delivered this message to 30 rapt listeners at the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center on the Hilltop, members of the Hilltop Early Learning Partnership, a mayoral task force.

In his Feb. 23 State of the City speech, Mayor Andrew Ginther announced a goal of doubling the number of Hilltop children enrolled in quality pre-K by 2020. “In the Hilltop, fewer children are enrolled in quality pre-kindergarten than anywhere else in the city,” he said.

By December, the task force will issue recommendations, a first step toward the mayor's long-term goal of providing pre-K to every 4-year-old in Columbus – an estimated 11,266 kids.

Barriers to progress are high. Citizens must understand the stakes. Then they must be persuaded to invest. Quality pre-K is expensive.

The median cost of private preschool tuition in Franklin County is $9,400 per year. A moderate quality program costs more than $8,000. High-quality programs (five-star in state ratings) approach $14,000.

High ratings are earned by having educated and trained teachers, effective learning plans, interaction between staff and families and individual tracking. To be eligible for limited state funding, pre-K programs must be registered by 2020, and earn at least a three-star rating by 2025.

Among Ohio cities, Cincinnati and Dayton are at the forefront of persuading voters to invest in pre-K. In November 2016, voters in the Cincinnati Public School District approved (62-38) a 7.93-mill, five-year property tax levy to generate $48 million per year, with $15 million allocated for pre-K to be managed by United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

In the same election, Dayton voters approved (56-44) boosting the city income tax from 2.25 to 2.5 percent, for eight years. The levy is estimated to generate $11 million annually, with about $4 million dedicated for pre-K.

Cleveland has a community-wide initiative, the Cleveland Early Childhood Compact, but it still seeks a dedicated funding stream.

Among the states, Georgia boasts the nation's first universal pre-K program — funded entirely by the state lottery. Since voter approval in 1992, the lottery has provided $8 billion for college scholarships and $5 billion for pre-K.

Sometime next year, Columbus will be debating whether, and how, to offer universal pre-K to every 4-year-old.