Ohio is lagging behind in several areas of preschool education, but with federal funding for pre-K programs drying up, it may soon have company.

According to the latest edition of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) State of Preschool Yearbook, enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has stalled — as have the federal grants that have helped these programs expand in recent years.

During the 2017-2018 school year, about a third of four-year-olds and just under six percent of three-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs in the U.S. These figures represent a modest increase from the previous year, with much of the increase stemming from federal Preschool Development Grants.

Unfortunately, these federal funds — which were announced in December 2014 and paid out over four years — are coming to an end this year, and states will have to find ways to make up for the consequent funding gap. This will be especially critical in states like Massachusetts, which was able to enroll an additional 24,000 students in preschool thanks to these grants.

However, not all states have seen the same growth in enrollment as a result of the Preschool Development Grants. Five states — Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Wisconsin — actually saw a decrease in enrollment during the federal funding period, a drop that may be difficult to recover from once the program ends. Even more startlingly, six states — Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming — don’t operate programs that meet the definition of a state-funded preschool program at all.

Defining a State-Funded Preschool Program

NIEER’s definition of state-funded preschool programs relies on specific criteria, some that are fairly basic and others that are quite stringent. First and foremost, the program must be funded, controlled, and directed by the state, and it should be designed specifically to serve a group of children of preschool age. Further, early childhood education should be the focus of the program — not parent education or simply childcare.

However, meeting this basic definition isn’t enough to qualify as a state-funded preschool; there are also a number of Quality Standards Benchmarks that schools are expected to meet. For example, a state-funded preschool must have comprehensive early learning and development standards covering physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, language development, approaches toward learning, and cognition and general knowledge. It should also offer a strong, well-implemented curriculum that increases support for learning and development, and should require teachers to have four-year degrees and complete 15 hours of professional development (PD) per year.

How Ohio Measures Up

The good news for Ohio residents is that our state is among those that have seen increased enrollment in their state-funded pre-K programs over the last half-decade. In 2014, four percent of Ohio’s four-year-olds were enrolled in preschool; now, 11 percent are. Additionally, in 2018, Ohio was awarded a Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five award for nearly $10.5 million, money the state can use to increase Ohioans’ access to preschool.

However, Ohio offers limited access for three-year-old children, as in 2016, the state passed a new policy that allows three-year-olds to enroll in preschool only if the available number of spots cannot be filled by four-year-olds. Now, only one percent of Ohio’s three-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K, meaning many children are missing out on a valuable head start.

Further, Ohio meets only five of NIEER’s ten Quality Standards Benchmarks. While it offers comprehensive early learning and development standards and its curriculum has cleared the bar for approval, it only requires preschool teachers to hold a two-year degree. What’s more, though Ohio requires 20 hours of PD for preschool teachers every two years, that amounts to fewer hours than the NIEER recommends. Finally, Ohio’s pre-K class sizes and staff-child ratio are slightly higher than recommended.

Funding a Brighter Future

Ultimately, clearing these benchmarks will require adequate funding, something many Ohio school districts currently lack. However, there’s a good chance that many of these districts are entitled to the funding they need — or, at the very least, more than they’re currently receiving.

Accurate enrollment reporting is a vital part of schools’ receiving the funding they deserve, but many schools are still using confusing, disorganized, and outdated spreadsheets. Changing that practice is the first step to a brighter future for Ohio’s youngest learners.