How Cincinnati Expanded Access to Quality Preschool

Today I am excited to bring you an interview with Greg Landsman, who helped lead a successful — and historic — campaign in Cincinnati, Ohio to provide high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds. It’s an inspiring story that shows the power of individuals coming together and taking action to make our communities better for families. And it’s one that I, as a Cincinnatian, am incredibly proud of.

The Interview

Q: First off, congratulations are in order. You led a massive grassroots initiative in Cincinnati called Preschool Promise that asked voters to expand state-funded preschool this past November. And it passed, a huge win for Cincinnati. Can you explain what voters agreed to?

A: Voters supported a $48 million levy to fund the expansion of both high-quality preschool and public schools within the Cincinnati Public School district. Each year for the next 5 years, $15 million of the levy will go toward the preschool expansion work that Preschool Promise will lead. That money will be divided into two parts: tuition assistance for families to afford high-quality preschool and support to assist programs that are working to increase their state rating, called Step Up to Quality, to a 3, 4, or 5-star. Tuition assistance can only be used for quality rated programs at or above 3-stars.

Q: Why is preschool so important for children?

A: The vast majority of brain development happens in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. Children who attend 2 years of high-quality preschool start school prepared not only academically, but also socially and emotionally. They know their letters, shapes, colors, and numbers, and they also feel comfortable in a classroom. It means they know how to interact with other students and children, and how to interact with the teacher. They take their skills and success to kindergarten, which helps them do well in first grade, then second, and all the way through until graduation.

The goal is to provide every child a great start in life with two years of high-quality preschool and then a transition to a great public school.Greg Landsman

Q: Why is preschool so important in Cincinnati, and how does funding work?

A: Thousands of children in Cincinnati attend low-quality preschools and enter kindergarten academically, socially, and emotionally unprepared. They struggle because they’re unsure about the rules and how to interact with other children and their teachers. They develop a problematic mindset that school must not really be for them.

There are over 9,000 3- and 4-year olds in the city of Cincinnati, and about 70% of those children live at or below 200% of poverty, which is considered to be the self-sufficiency line. If you make more than 200% of poverty, then your income allows you to be self-sufficient. If you make anything less than 200%, then you’re probably having a hard time making ends meet, and the ability to pay for high-quality preschool is definitely off the table.

These families need help. If they are eligible for federal funding, that money comes in first. Then we layer the local funding from the Preschool Promise on top of that, so it is tuition-free for all families at or below 200% poverty.

And then there is a sliding scale above that to make sure a strong percent of tuition assistance goes to families between 200-300% poverty, because those families are still struggling to pay for high-quality preschool. Our hope is that by covering the families at or below 200-300% poverty, we will be in a position to say that all children—irrespective of income—have access to 2 years of high-quality preschool.

Greg Landsman of Preschool Promise

Q: How did you get involved with Preschool Promise, and why?

A: Four years ago I had the opportunity to meet and discuss education initiatives with Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado on a leadership exchange trip. Hickenlooper singled out the Denver preschool program as the single most import thing he was a part of when he was Mayor of Denver. He gave me the basics about the data and how he pulled a great policy together through the input and efforts of people all over the city. He said by including the community in the discussion, the people ended up making a much better plan.

I returned to Cincinnati, talked to my staff, and we committed to follow the same formula. We looked at best practices and put a policy together, ran the numbers, and began holding events. We did hundreds of events and house parties all over the city and collected nearly 10,000 signatures. Every time we had a conversation with people who wanted to see this happen (and that meant several times a day for several years!), the piece of policy just got better and better. By the time it was ready to put on the ballot, we had thousands of people knocking on doors, putting out yards signs, and working on election day!

Q: Now that the initiative has passed, what’s the next step for Preschool Promise?

A: After years of intense work to get it on the ballot and passed, our work is not over. The next step is to implement it with excellence.

We made history in more ways than one. The vote itself was historic as the largest margin of victory of any Cincinnati Public School levy ever. And to pass a levy to give 2 years of high-quality preschool to all children in this city is historic! Not only will this be transformative for children and the system of preschool in Cincinnati, but it will also be a model for how to run a complex system where people across the board are happy and feel like they got everything they wanted out of it.

For parents this means an accessible program where they can easily find out about the assistance they are eligible for and locate and enroll in a great school. It also means a reliable process from start to finish, where they get to interact with kind and helpful people every step of the way.

For providers this means they can fill their preschool programs, they get paid on time, it’s an easy system, and there is support as questions or any problems arise. And for taxpayers this means they look at this thing and say, “They’re spending our money very wisely, and we’re getting a great return by having quality schools and prepared kids.”

Q: Dayton also passed a measure to expand state-funded preschool programs this past November. Is this something we’re seeing more and more across the country, or are Cincinnati and Dayton isolated instances?

A: It’s happening all over the country, but mostly in cities (other than progress made in Oklahoma and Georgia). We’ve worked closely with Dayton from the beginning and it is our hope that if we can implement Preschool Promise with excellence and make significant changes for kids, we will see this happen in other cities in Ohio and then throughout the entire state.

Q: So many parents in The Breeding Ground community would love to have something like Preschool Promise where they live. How can others in cities throughout the country replicate the success of Preschool Promise?

A: Have a bold vision. Articulate your why and how. Say, “We’re going to do something big!” Then, go take the time to build it with parents and key stakeholders (i.e. case providers and taxpayers). Hold events, walk in parades, host house parties, and reach out to faith-based organizations and others to help run campaigns to raise money for research and to organize more advocacy. Commit to making it happen no matter what, and build a community of people who won’t give up. Keep going until you get it done!

For a blueprint of what a policy could look like where you live, check out this study from Preschool Promise’s Rand research on best practices for expanding high-quality preschool and what that would look like in Cincinnati. 

Greg Landsman with his family

Q: Let’s turn to you personally. You’re a working dad. Could you tell us a bit about your family, and how you integrate work and life?

A: It’s certainly a struggle, and think I’ve done an okay job. The key is: when you’re home you’re home. My wife helps remind me to be present, my kids, who are 5 and 7, even do it by telling me to put my phone away! I think it’s also important that your children understand the work you do and that it is good and important, no matter the job. If you work on something you believe in, your kids should know that. It makes a big difference to them and helps them understand.

Q: Initiatives like Preschool Promise will support families. What else is needed to better support parents in the United States?

A: I think the preschool piece is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope it gives people a reason to believe that they can get things they want to see done, done. Another issue that has to be addressed is the inequity in prenatal care. A lot of moms don’t have access to high quality prenatal care or the support needed to ensure each child is born on time and at a healthy birth weight.

The preschool piece is part of a larger early learning picture that includes: prenatal care, paid leave, access to home visitation support, mental health services, quality childcare, and a myriad of other things to support a strong bond between parents and children.

Thanks so much, Greg! And  thrilled you’ve decided to run for Cincinnati City Council — all the best with this next campaign (for those of you who’d like to know more, click here)!

To our wonderful readers: my hope in sharing Cincinnati’s Preschool Promise story is that it will inspire others in cities throughout the country — perhaps you — to act. (We also will soon post a guide based on Greg’s suggestions for how to replicate Preschool Promise’s success). Accessible, affordable, and high-quality preschool, and other family supportive policies and laws, is possible when a community comes together and commits to doing what it takes to get it done.

Join our growing community of parents and access great resources like our guides. Register for The Breeding Ground (it’s free)!

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