Universal Preschool: Going beyond the Denver model

Local organizers say their proposal, as is, would go further than almost any other in the country.

DENVER, Colo. - There's a push underway in Cincinnati to make universal pre-school a solution for reducing our community's alarmingly high childhood poverty rate.

As Local 12 News continues to investigate Childhood Poverty: Cincinnati's Crisis, backers of expanded preschool say their proposal would go further than almost any other in the country, by making taxpayer-subsidized preschool available to three and 4-year-olds.

The Cincinnati Preschool Promise is based on a program in Denver where voters have twice raised sales taxes to finance preschool tuition credits for any family. But while the Denver program covers only 4-year-olds, Greg Landsman, director of the Cincinnati Preschool Promise, says the Cincinnati proposal goes Denver one better.

"And this is terribly important," Landsman says. "We want to include 3-year-olds."

That additional year of preschool means additional cost.

But Cincinnati Vice-Mayor David Mann, a member of the Preschool Promise steering committee, says, "Sure it's a higher cost. But the benefits outweigh the costs, because if you have two years of quality preschool, your life is a lot different than if you have one year of quality preschool."

Preschool is not cheap. For example, tuition at the YMCA's Christ Child center in Over-the-Rhine is about $200 per week. There is also federally-funded Head Start for low income families, but there are only enough Head Start slots in Cincinnati for about one-third of eligible children. The Cincinnati Preschool Promise could add 5,000 more slots, not just Head Start-eligible children, but for kids from all income levels.

"This is an investment which you'll see not just over time, but will immediately change a city," says Landsman.

Cincinnati business, civic, and education leaders learned about the Denver Preschool program during a visit to the Mile High City in 2012. Since then, Cincinnati advocates have been planning, holding rallies, getting more than 7,000 people to sign a "preschool promise" of support and registering voters for a November 2016 preschool tax issue.

It's been several years since the Denver visit, but backers say rushing a tax measure would have been a mistake.

"Tax issues are never easy," says Vice-Mayor Mann, "but what the [failed 2015] park levy taught us, or reminded us, is that you're not going to be successful unless you build from the ground up."

There's also a timing strategy.

"You also want to make sure you go in a presidential year. In 2016, when you have the highest chance of passing it," says Landsman. "That's why we decided to take our time and get it right and go in 2016."

Key reasons for the tax hike winning in Denver, which are in the Cincinnati plan as well, include allowing the subsidies to be used at any certified preschool, public or private and having those subsidies eligible to all community families, not just those below the poverty line.

"We want to have strong tuition assistance for low income families, "Landsman says, "but also for middle class families because they are reeling."

As in Denver, the Cincinnati Preschool Promise would not pay 100 percent of tuition. Exact amounts are not determined yet, but as in Denver, there would be a sliding scale. Lower income families would get higher amounts. And there would be even more assistance if the child attends a highly-rated preschool, based on state evaluations.

The Amos Project, a coalition of faith-based organizations working on social justice, is one of the groups behind the Preschool Promise.

That group's Rev. Troy Jackson says, "We need to attack the problems of poverty, not just with food banks or development programs, as important as they are, but we also need to look at some structural investments that demonstrate our values as people of faith that we place in our children."

Specifics of the tax plan are still a work in progress. Backers will decide soon whether to go for a sales tax, earnings tax or property tax hike and whether to limit the plan to the City of Cincinnati or include all of Hamilton County. They're estimating annual cost at around $50 to $100 per person, depending on the type of tax.

Supporters of the Preschool Promise say that's a relatively small amount for something which could have such a big impact.

"This," Greg Landsman says, "could be the moment where we make history."

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