Ohio Slashes Early Childhood Budget and Eliminates Full-Day Pre-K
The economic crisis exacted one of its biggest casualities on state pre-k programs last week when Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signed into law a biennial state budget that zeroes out the state's full-day pre-k program and chopped funding for its half-day program by one-third.
The budget also slashed reimbursements for child care providers that serve low-income children, cut back on the number of poor families that can qualify for child care and reduced funding for the state's birth-to-three program by 25 percent.
The Early Learning Initiative, which funds full-day preschool for some 13,000 children, was one of 61 items that Gov. Strickland struck from the budget last week using the power of his line-item veto. The initiative was designed to bring community-based providers into the state's fledgling early education system by providing them with funds to train teachers. In fiscal year 2009 the program received $128 million, and in an observational study published last month, its teachers showed improvement in literacy instruction and classroom management since its launch four years ago.
It's too early to know how many children will be affected by ELI's phase-out, scheduled for August 23. Fortunately, about 4,500 of its enrollees are old enough to start kindergarten this fall. And the state has developed a transition plan to allow about 90 percent of current enrollees to continue receiving financial assistance through Ohio's subsidized child care program, according to Terrie Hare, director of the Child Care Bureau at the Ohio Department of Jobs and Families. (The department sent a letter to ELI parents late last week encouraging them to apply for subsidies.)
The state also runs an older half-day program, once called "public preschool" and now called Early Childhood Education. Children in this program are typically taught in pre-K classrooms located in public schools. To balance the budget, lawmakers stripped the program of $11 million, leaving it with $23.5 million. About 1500 to 2300 fewer children will be able to served, said Jane Wiechel, an early education official at the Department of Education.
So where will parents enroll those children instead? Good question. If they are looking for an affordable alternative at a child care center they may find themselves out of luck. The budget ax came down on child care providers too. The Ohio Legislature reduced reimbursement rates for providers that serve low-income families and lowered the income level at which families can qualify for subsidies. Newcomers to the subsidy program must now show that their incomes are at 150 percent of the federal poverty level ($33,075 for a family of four). Previously, families at up to 200 percent of the poverty were eligible.
The budget also squeezed Help Me Grow, the state's birth-to-three program, dropping its funding to $58.5 million next year compared to the nearly $80 million it received for fiscal year 2009, according to a budget summary sent to the childcare community from the Department of Jobs and Family Services. The program will be restricted to first-time parents at 200 percent of poverty, reports groundWork, a coalition of early childhood advocates. But one glimmer of good news for the program, said groundWork's operations coordinator Susan Blasko, is that most of its funding will now come from the state's general fund instead of being pulled from a pot of welfare money that is often used for other programs.
Including a few smaller programs not mentioned above, the cuts mean a drop of about $150 million in funding for early childhood in Ohio from 2009 to 2010, according to the summary by the Department of Jobs and Family Services.
This is a sad turn-of-events for early childhood advocates, who had been applauding the state's efforts until now. Gov. Strickland has been pushing for early childhood education and K-12 reforms since his election in 2007 and has been quoted in advocates' brochures for his dedication to increasing pre-K opportunities for disadvantaged children. But the cuts could undermine these efforts.
For example, a pillar of Gov. Strickland's reform agenda is a new funding formula for the K-12 system that the Governor was able to push through in this budget. Instead of distributing money to districts based almost entirely on the number of pupils they serve, the state will now allocate funding depending on what kind of services and what types of teaching expertise are needed by the pupils in those districts. The Ohio Education Association praised the passage of the new spending plan, describing it as fair and helpful to rural and poor schools.
But given the cuts to early learning programs, the K-12 system shouldn't be celebrating yet. It will likely be receiving more children unprepared for elementary school, leading to more education costs in the long run.
And while the budget does require schools to offer full-day kindergarten by the 2010-11 school year -- a good move -- it doesn't require that every school offer it for free. That's because, with budgets so tight, the new funding plan permits some schools that had started charging parents for all-day kindergarten to continue to do so. Fortunately, the Department of Education reports, most schools in Ohio's high-poverty areas are already providing full-day kindergarten for free.
One bright spot in the budget is an incentive system to nudge child care centers to make quality improvements. Centers that serve low-income children will be able to earn increases in their state subsidies if they score a two-star or three-star rating on Ohio's Step Up to Quality system. (We describe this type of quality rating improvement system in a recent issue brief.) But given the funding reductions these centers are contending with, it's a bit of a mystery how they are supposed to pay for the staff training or salaries that will help them achieve higher quality.
The shame is that the backsliding on early childhood investments may take Ohio out of the running for a new federal grant program that is part of legislation in Congress this week. Under the proposed plan for Early Learning Challenge Grants, states can compete for $1 billion a year to build a state-wide early learning system. The catch is that to get the grants, states must show progress and dedication to upgrading what they've already got. Ohio no longer looks so strong on that score. The state's now-defunct vision was to use ELI and the ECE program as key components of an integrated "mixed market" early childhood system, in which parents could choose from high-quality community providers or enroll children in preschool classrooms at their local schools. Both programs were designed, according to Wiechel of the Ohio education department, to use the same curricula, step into alignment with the state's K-12 academic standards and move toward hiring more teachers with degrees and early childhood credentials. ELI was a key piece of that puzzle because it had been providing payments to 101 school districts, Head Start agencies and community-based providers to help them hire credentialed teachers and pay for their training.
"Consistency across settings" was the intention, Wiechel said. "But it takes time," she added. "It's not a quick fix."
One of ELI's fatal flaws, it seems, is that it was funded with surplus federal dollars from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program -- a program that allows states to determine how they want to use any extra money left over after federal welfare assistance funds have been distributed. Now, "that surplus has been depleted," according to a fact sheet distributed last week by Ohio's Early Childhood Cabinet. Child advocates had been hoping that ELI would eventually be funded with state tax revenues instead of the less-secure TANF dollars. The governor opted to delete it instead, according to officials, when revenue projections for state coffers looked even bleaker than expected.
Yet the administration is "still committed" to developing a system for early childhood programs, said Hare of the Department of Jobs and Families. She pointed, for example, to the implementation of the reward system for childcare centers with 2- and 3-star ratings under the Step Up to Quality system. In addition, the Child Care Bureau will be moved from the Department of Jobs and Families to the Department of Education to provide more continuity between child care and early education programs. And the budget calls for the development of a state center for early childhood to coordinate all early learning programs in the state. "We could have really dropped a lot of things but we tried to maintain some infrastructure," Hare said.
A bare bones infrastructure is, indeed, better than none at all. But it's disappointing to see Ohio balance its admittedly dismal budget on the backs of its youngest children and struggling families. Federal money for Head Start expansion may help in a small way (throughout the country, those dollars are still trickling through the pipeline and have yet to translate into any substantial new slots yet), but until we see an economic turnaround, early childhood programs appear to be easy targets.