When she was 4 years old, Jenny C. Laster would listen to her great grandmother as she sat in a living room chair and read comic strips from the newspaper.

The words she absorbed cultivated a developing mind while imparting a lifelong appetite for knowledge.

Seventy years later, the former schoolteacher, head of human resources and Urban League member is earning a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies.

“I want children to have the same opportunity I did. I want children to want to learn the way I did,” says Laster.

She’s now volunteering as an ambassador for Cincinnati’s Preschool Promise, an initiative that looks to create quality preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old in the city.

In 2012, Cincinnati had the second highest child poverty rate among 76 major U.S. cities, while roughly 70 percent of its public school students were categorized as low income. In the 2011-2012 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools only graduated 66 percent, and 24 percent of third graders were not proficient in reading.

“We say all the time that our future is in our youth, and we don’t act on it. We’re in trouble because of it,” says former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper. “I often think what my grandchildren, 20 years from now, will look back and say, ‘Why in God’s name didn’t my grandfather do something on this issue? Why did it have to wait till now?’”

The issue in Cincinnati illuminates a larger national problem. The U.S. continues to lag behind the rest of the world in academic performance, while countries in Western Europe, South America and Asia are making significant investments in early childhood education. On the national stage, Pepper—and a host of other CEOs—has trumpeted the importance of early childhood education in front of U.S. Senate committees. Along with his altruistic concerns, Pepper fears prolonged inaction will spur serious long-term economic decline foth the nation.

“We won’t get to where we need to be without a competitive workforce,” he says. “The only question is: Will we see the light before it becomes our version of Pearl Harbor?”

Conceived by various organizations, including Leadership Cincinnati Class 36, and driven by United Way’s Success by Six, the Strive Partnership and 4C for Children, Cincinnati Preschool Promise aims to address the problem by starting at the mind’s earliest development stage.

Promise organizers have begun enlisting grassroots ambassadors, like Laster, to inform and marshal support via house parties, community forums and presentations at various places. So far, the effort has attracted almost 150 ambassadors who will support and engage the community. In addition, almost 1,000 people have signed a pledge to support Preschool Promise.

It’s an important role, because the program will likely require voter approval in 2015 or 2016.

To create a self-sustaining program, the Promise will need a $16 to $18 million finance plan to fund a portion of the public-private partnership.

Promise organizers have not released an official funding plan, but they’ve polled potential voters about the likelihood of passing a tax for preschool.

“We can’t rely solely on philanthropy,” says Greg Landsman, the executive director of the Strive Partnership and a Promise organizer. Landsman ran a failed city council race in 2013 and is well aware of the tax stigma at the ballot box. “It doesn’t appear that people are against taxes; it appears that people are against wasteful spending.”

According to a report from Child Care America, the annual cost of daycare exceeds the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges in 31 states. Considering there are 18 years to save for college, as well as numerous subsidies and scholarships, many parents aren’t as prepared for the financial burden of quality daycare.

From an educator’s standpoint, preschool is pivotal in the education continuum. It lays the groundwork for third grade reading, a major indicator of future academic success. Beginning in 2014, all Ohio third graders must pass the state-based reading test or they will not advance to fourth grade.

“Five hundred to 750 kids [in Cincinnati Public Schools] will be held back this year because they did not pass the third grade reading test. That will cost the district between $5 and $7 million,” Landsman says. “The number one predictor of third grade reading success is whether or not a kid shows up to kindergarten, and whether or not a kid shows up to kindergarten ready, has a lot to do with whether or not they have access to affordable quality preschool.”

Based on numbers from the United Way, roughly half of the students who attend Cincinnati Public Schools kindergarten have received some form of preschool education. However, recovering data about quality remains difficult.

“We recognize the value of preschool in Cincinnati Public Schools, especially in building a foundation for the early literacy skills that are so important to success throughout a child’s education,” Mary Ronan, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, said in an emailed statement. “We currently fund 42 preschool classes serving about 1,100 youngsters, but the demand is far greater than we are able to provide.”

Major cities across the United States have developed universal preschool programs: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Denver, among others. Cincinnati’s Preschool Promise is modeled after Denver’s program, one of the first implemented in the United States at the city level.

It took Mile High-voters three tries until they approved the initiative in 2006. The program is now paid for from a sales tax increase; 12 cents for every $100 purchase goes to fund the program. After some opposition from the Tea Party and other anti-tax groups, San Antonio passed a universal preschool program in 2012. The plan increased its local sales tax to 8.25 percent, the maximum Texas law allows.

Jennifer Landrum, CEO of the Denver Preschool program, says getting feedback from voters about the finance mechanism and scope of the program are paramount to succeeding on Election Day.

“The model was centered around school readiness and making sure children were ready for kindergarten,” says Landrum, who believes the failed ballot proposals were too broad for voters’ taste. “It resonated with voters when it was targeted toward preschool children.”

The Denver Preschool program operates separately from the Denver public school system as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The mayor and city council appoint their program’s board, while the operating budget floats around $13 million a year.

Under the Cincinnati Preschool Promise, just like in Denver, every child would receive a subsidy; lower income families would receive more money, while higher income families would receive less. Based on state-based rating system, the subsidies would only work at “quality” performing preschools, thereby incentivizing preschools to perform well.

In February, the University of Cincinnati Economics Center released a preliminary report on the economic benefit of the universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. According to the report, the city could see at minimum a $49 million annual in new public savings with a two-year preschool program.

Promise organizers plan to release another economic benefit study later this summer that will result in full cost-benefit analysis of Preschool Promise.

In late April, Laster and a handful of Promise Ambassadors attended a meeting at 4C for Children on Dana Avenue. After sharing their own motives for participating, they listened to a presentation detailing the need for a universal preschool system.

The first slides told the story of June and Jaylyn, two fictional children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. While Jaylyn attends two years of quality preschool at ages 3 and 4, June’s family can’t afford quality preschool, so she starts kindergarten 18 months behind Jaylyn. The following slides illustrated Jaylyn’s success, from passing the third grade reading test to graduating high school and getting accepted to college. The other slides show June’s academic path; failing the third grade reading test, her frustration from getting held back and finally dropping out of high school.

By expanding preschool to all children, Promise organizers believe Cincinnati can become an attractive destination for job seekers and businesses and end the flight to the suburbs. As ambassadors like Laster venture into the community, they’ve armed themselves with a plethora of data-driven information.

As for swaying voters on a potential increase in taxes, Laster will put the issue into context.

“Well, if you raised taxes for the stadium, you can raise taxes for the children,” she says. “We use tax dollars for stadiums, and most of the children we’re talking about will never see that inside of those stadiums… If we can use money for luxury items like a stadium, surely we can figure out how to use money for children… It’s a matter of priority… What’s important to us?”

 
 Education Continuum
  • Success in learning to read impacts other subjects as well. Students who exceed the third grade reading standards are 10 times more likely to do well in eighth grade math.


  • Children who attend preschool are 43 percent more likely to be ready for kindergarten than those who did not. Being ready for kindergarten can impact how kids progress through school and life.


  • The ripple effect continues; 80 to 90 percent of kids who take advanced math in eighth grade will graduate from high school ready for college or a career.


  • Eighty six percent of kids who are kindergarten-ready can read at or above the third grade level. Ohio kids need to be able to do this to move on to the fourth grade.

Information and data provided by the Strive Partnership and United Way Success By 6
     
  • Success in learning to read impacts other subjects as well. Students who exceed the third grade reading standards are 10 times more likely to do well in eighth grade math.

  • Children who attend preschool are 43 percent more likely to be ready for kindergarten than those who did not. Being ready for kindergarten can impact how kids progress through school and life.

  • The ripple effect continues; 80 to 90 percent of kids who take advanced math in eighth grade will graduate from high school ready for college or a career.

  • Eighty six percent of kids who are kindergarten-ready can read at or above the third grade level. Ohio kids need to be able to do this to move on to the fourth grade.

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