DAYTON — The most unconventional part of Dayton’s proposed income tax increase facing voters on Nov. 8 is the attempt to make high-quality preschool available for every 4-year-old in the city.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and some local education leaders say they hope to create a domino effect that helps the city’s children, families and economy for decades to come.
Some opponents of the plan question why city government is getting involved with schools, whether the project will be accountable to voters, and whether the language of the ordinance is strict enough.
The vote on Dayton’s 0.25 percent income tax hike will be, in part, a decision on whether major preschool expansion is a good tool for solving Dayton’s education and workforce problems.
If voters approve Issue 9, Dayton’s income tax rate would rise from 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent for eight years. The increase would not apply to pensions and Social Security. City officials estimate that 70 percent of the people who pay the earnings tax work in the city, but live elsewhere.
Why this path?
Learn to Earn Dayton is among the leaders of the effort. CEO Tom Lasley cites broad research, including work by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, linking investment in early childhood education with individual success and community economic gains.
Whaley said education affects the success of the community now.
“When we try to attract any kind of business, the first question is, well, what does your workforce look like?” Whaley said.
Learn to Earn officials cite a domino path starting in the first years of life – statistics show children who grade “ready for kindergarten” at age 5 are much more likely to read proficiently by third grade. Solid third-grade readers are more likely to eventually earn high school diplomas, and graduates are more likely to have a positive impact on their communities.
So cities across the nation are adding focus to preschool education, trying to get more students ready at age 5. Preschool mainly falls outside the K-12 state funding of public schools, so Dayton is trying a city tax levy.
Cincinnati Public Schools’ levy next month would include $15 million per year for preschool expansion, and Cleveland’s PRE4CLE program has expanded access there.
Dayton officials said they have traveled to cities such as Denver and Boston that are further along to study them and avoid repeating their mistakes.
In 2014-15, only 14.5 percent of Dayton students tested “ready for kindergarten” at age 5, compared with 35.7 percent countywide and 37.3 percent statewide, according to Learn to Earn data. Local officials want to boost those numbers.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar of Racial Justice Now worried that this preschool effort wouldn’t have the accountability of a public school or the same commitment to equity for students from different backgrounds.
At a public forum this month, local activist David Esrati questioned why the program would be run by a non-elected board that voters could not hold accountable.
And former Mayor Gary Leitzell, now running for Montgomery County commissioner, criticized the services that would be provided, suggesting on Facebook that most Montgomery County children would be kindergarten-ready by age 3 if they consistently watched “Your Baby Can Learn” DVDs.
“Government should NOT be subsidizing a babysitting service for working families,” Leitzell wrote.
Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Learn to Earn, said they are taking equity and transparency concerns seriously. She mentioned providing diverse resource material and training in cultural competency. If the measure passes, Lightcap said the nonprofit board would have open, public meetings with “full transparency on how funds are spent.”
What would happen?
An ordinance passed by city commission calls for more than $4 million of the $11 million that would be raised annually to go toward making high-quality preschool available.
Lightcap said a nonprofit agency will be set up to handle the money, award contracts and manage the preschool effort, with the seven board members appointed by the Dayton and Montgomery County commissions. The county eventually hopes to take preschool access countywide.
Lightcap said more than 80 percent of the money would go toward two things – sliding-scale tuition assistance for families, and efforts to increase the quality of existing preschool options. She said close to two-thirds of Dayton 4-year-olds go to preschool now, but only 40 percent attend high-quality programs, and research shows quality is key.
“We’ll be providing very intensive coaching in the classroom … making sure that they have a high-quality curriculum in place and effective classroom behavioral management systems,” Lightcap said. “And the family engagement piece is critical. If you build a strong connection between the parents and the education system in the early years, that follows through K-12.”
Dayton Christian Center on Riverview Avenue has risen from unrated to three stars in Ohio’s five-star quality system. Executive Director Tasha Johnson said it requires hard work by school directors on staffing, by teachers on professional growth, and by families on getting involved.
Johnson said finances are a common obstacle. The poorest families have access to Head Start preschool or publicly funded childcare. But a family of four making $32,000 or more would not qualify for either, and could face a $10,000 annual cost for full-time child care/preschool.
“You add in rent and other expenses, and it’s totally unaffordable,” Johnson said. “For that lower-middle income person, it’s hard.”
Ready for Kindergarten?
Percentage of students scoring in top band on state readiness test (three-year average):
Huber Hts: 36.1
Source: Learn to Earn Dayton
JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF