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State lawmakers want more money for preschool programs

State lawmakers want to send more state dollars to pre-kindergarten programs that prepare children for kindergarten.

Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, wants to put $100 million toward pre-kindergarten education for Ohio’s youngest and poorest students. Lehner, who serves on a panel of lawmakers evaluating the House version of the state budget bill, said every year the state waits to fund preschool, 130,000 more children go under-served.

“This is one issue that we have such overwhelming data on the effectiveness of it, the cost savings and the value of how it can make a difference in a child’s life,” Lehner said Thursday.

Ohio’s Early Childhood Education program serves 5,700 3- and 4-year-olds living in homes well below the poverty level, spending $3,980 per pupil. Gov. John Kasich provided $2 million in his state budget plan to expand the program for another 500 students.

House Republicans proposed an additional $5 million to cover 2,200 children in families earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $47,100 for a family of four. Students could use vouchers to attend public or private preschools that receive at least a three-star quality rating from the state.

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 four-year-old students in 2012, compared to 19 percent in Michigan and 30 percent in Kentucky.

Kettering Schools plans to open a new early childhood learning center in August, but Superintendent Jim Schoenlein said the new facility will barely meet the community’s needs. Schoenlein told lawmakers this week that more preschool options are needed, especially because population has increased as state school funding has decreased. Kettering enrolls about 240 pre-kindergarten students, including 73 through the state ECE program.

“We have long, long waiting lists — we just don’t have spots to serve everyone we’d like to,” Schoenlein said.

There’s room in the $61.5 billion budget, of which $13.5 billion has been allocated for K-12 education. Preschool funding could be pulled from programs such as the $150 million Straight A Fund that gives grants to innovative, cost-savings programs or the $25.5 million to expand the state’s voucher program.

Lehner said she was concerned about the voucher expansion, which has been introduced as a two-year pilot to cover kindergarten and first-grade students, but could lock the state into continuing the program at least for those students.

“We need to be talking about what does this mean in the long run and is this something we can afford and is this the best use of limited resources in our education system,” Lehner said during Thursday’s committee meeting.

Stephanie Owens, principal for Centerville Primary Village South School, said investing in preschool will improve literacy more than holding back a child in third grade per the state law enacted last year requiring all third-graders to read at grade level before moving to fourth grade. Owens said about 35 percent of Centerville kindergartners start school without any prior education and many start behind their peers.

“With reduced oral language and vocabulary skills, many of these students also struggle in literacy skills,” Owens said.

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