MARIETTA - President Barack Obama's call to extend preschool to all children is an idea some local officials generally agree with, but there remain numerous questions about how it would be executed.
"I think we ought to have universal preschool," said Tom Gibbs, superintendent of the Fort Frye and Warren Local school districts. "It's a great idea. But ... either where is that money going to come from or what requirements are we going to reduce somewhere else?"
The White House has not provided numbers on how much it would cost to implement the federal-state partnership the president proposed to make high-quality public preschool available to all 4-year-olds in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. But Obama aides have said this and other new programs he's proposed will not add to the nation's nearly $16.5 trillion debt.
Putnam Church Preschool teacher/administrator Melody Hoskinson, right, watches as Keely Hansen uses a spelling app on an iPad connected to a projector. (Photo by Evan Bevins)
Expanding preschool access is a good goal, said Melody Hoskinson, teacher and administrator at Putnam Church Preschool in Devola, even if it might not directly benefit her organization.
"I see some pros and cons for us, but I think it's good for the children of the nation," she said. "For us as a private preschool, a Christian preschool, I don't know if that means (children) will go to a public preschool."
Putnam and other area preschools meet state standards, but it is not known how they might be involved with Obama's proposal.
Currently, public preschool in Washington County is offered to identified special education students for whom such services are required under federal law. Children who don't qualify in that way can still enroll at a limited rate by paying tuition of $45 to $85 a month, depending on the number of days they attend, according to the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center, which operates the local public preschool programs. Ewing School also provides these services to students referred by local school districts, in addition to non-disabled peers, whose families pay tuition on a sliding scale based on income.
Federally funded Head Start programs also provide early learning opportunities and preschool to children from families at 100 percent of the poverty level or in some cases above, said David Brightbill, executive director of Washington-Morgan Community Action.
Community Action is funded to serve 274 children through Head Start and 40 more through Early Head Start, which includes home visits, in Washington and Morgan counties. Brightbill said he is in favor of making more children eligible for preschool assistance.
"We totally support, and our Head Start program demonstrates, that providing education to preschool-age children is extraordinarily cost-effective," he said.
Brightbill pointed to research that estimates a $3 to $7 return on every $1 invested in preschool in terms of avoiding remediation when a child starts elementary school, increasing a child's chances to go on to higher education and decreasing their chances to become involved in crime or drugs.
Preschool helps prepare a child for kindergarten, not just academically but also when it comes to interacting with other children, taking directions from people other than parents and establishing a love of learning, Hoskinson said.
"I think it gives them a good start to be confident about school," she said.
Public school officials say not all children come to kindergarten at the same level, and preschool can be of particular benefit to children in low-income families who may not have the same childhood learning opportunities as their peers.
"The research indicates poverty does matter in a student's readiness," said Chris Keylor, superintendent of the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center.
In addition to Head Start, there are other forms of assistance for families wanting to send their children to preschool.
Members of Putnam Congregational Church provide scholarships of $25 a month for about 14 families in need at Putnam Church Preschool this year, Hoskinson said. That offsets a portion of the $75- and $95-a-month rates for 3- and 4-year-olds, respectively.
The cost for half-day preschool can range from $70 to $200 at the YMCA depending on how many days a child attends and whether the family has a Y membership, said Suzy Zumwaulde, executive director of the Y. A sliding fee scale based on income and the number of people in a household is available to help people afford the service, she said.
"At this point, we try to be available for everyone in this community," Zumwaulde said.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services covers day care costs for families at 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The Betsey Mills Club and Marietta Family YMCA both offer preschool along with day care programs, which is beneficial to working parents, said Candy Nelson, supervisor with Job and Family Services in Washington County.
The Obama administration has pointed to the budget the president will unveil next month when asked about the potential cost of the program. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, proposed a $10,000-a-child match to what states spend. That effort could cost taxpayers almost $100 billion over 10 years, the Associated Press reported.
Gibbs said the cost locally could be estimated by looking at the average incoming kindergarten class size, 150, and the cost of educating an elementary schooler.
"We know right now that the average cost, including transportation and everything, for an elementary student, it's $8,000 per year," he said.
Savings on teacher salaries, since preschool would be half a day, would likely be offset by increased costs for transportation, particularly in rural districts, Gibbs said.
Republicans have questioned the president's plan in part because of the unknown costs.
"After listening to the president's remarks on education in his State of the Union address, I believe he thinks we can solve this problem by simply throwing more money at it," said Congressman Bill Johnson, a Republican and Marietta resident. "I disagree. I believe America is in need of an education overhaul, driven by economic growth that will provide our future generations with good-paying jobs when they graduate, and successful ideas that some states have already put into practice - like school choice."
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, supports early childhood education efforts and feels the most immediate concern with them is the so-called sequester, a pending series of budget cuts set to kick in March 1 if Congress doesn't approve another plan, said spokeswoman Lauren Kulik.
"He believes the education of Ohio's children should be a priority and is supportive of plans to reduce the deficit without threatening critical resources for Ohio's schools," she said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said the sequester could devastate pre-kindergarten programs.
The preschool expansion proposes a partnership between the federal government and states, but without specifics, it's hard to say how the president's proposal would fit in with efforts already going on in Ohio, said Stephanie Siddens, director of the Office of Early Learning and School Readiness for the state Department of Education.
She noted that a portion of Gov. John Kasich's proposed biennial budget directs more funding to new and existing early childhood education programs and a tenfold increase in preschool special education funding.