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Christian groups push for preschool vouchers in Ohio

Saying it would promote economic opportunities that lead to stable, traditional families, a group of Ohio pastors and Christian educators on Thursday urged state lawmakers to put more money in pre-kindergarten education.

The group, organized by Shepherding the Next Generation, a Washington, D.C., based organization of evangelical pastors and ministry leaders, put their support behind an effort to get $100 million set aside in the state budget to fund vouchers for public and private preschool education for 3-year-olds from low-income families.

They cited research that showed children who first attended pre-kindergarten were more likely to succeed in school and get jobs later in life, and less likely to have out-of-wedlock children.

The program would save taxpayers long-term by making it less likely the kids would eventually end up on public assistance or get involved with the criminal justice system, said Gary Gepfrey, director of Bridge Ministries Marriage Enrichment Center in Dayton.

“We don’t have any disposable children in this nation, in this state,” said Finn Laursen, executive director of the Westlake, Ohio-based Christian Educators Association International. “And need to invest in them up front so we’re not doing catch-up, and so we’re not ushering them in as school dropouts who have bigger challenges outside in our culture.”

The current version of the preschool plan would provide some children from families making up to 200 percent of the poverty line — about $47,100 for a family of four — with $4,500 vouchers to pay for preschool at academically-qualifying institutions, said Ohio Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering. Ohio House Republicans have set aside $10 million for preschool vouchers in their version of the state budget. Lehner said she’s hoping state senators working on their own budget plan can scrape together $100 million for preschool, which would cover two years of preschool for roughly 11,000 children.

“We may not be able to get it done in this budget. But we will get every penny we can, we will dig and scratch, until we can find as much as we can, and we will be back next year with a movement that is growing stronger every single day,” said Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

State Rep. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, the chairman of the House Finance Committee, said the issue has a lot of support among Republican members.

“There’s a consensus in the House that’s pretty strong that some of the best value we can get is when we focus on (students) at a very early age,” Amstutz said.

Ohio spends $22 million on pre-kindergarten programs and ranks No. 37 for access to preschool among 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. The state covered preschool costs for about 2 percent of 4-year-old students in 2012, compared to 19 percent in Michigan and 30 percent in Kentucky.

Staff Writer Jackie Borchardt contributed to this story

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