COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Democratic lawmakers in Ohio are looking toward a future where all 3- and 4-year-olds have access to preschool.

Sen. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) introduced Senate Bill 318 at the Statehouse in March, which would require Ohio’s governor to create a statewide, universal pre-K program if Congress authorizes the funding, according to the bill’s text.

SB 318 is contingent upon the enactment of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, whose fate remains unclear. If approved by federal lawmakers, the plan would funnel about $3.3 billion to Ohio for both the expansion of childcare and the creation of a universal pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds, according to Fedor’s website. 

While the kinks of what a universal pre-K program would look like have yet to be determined, Sen. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) said providing free preschool to Ohioans is worth it – regardless of cost.

“Universal pre-K, whatever the cost is, outweighs what the price tag is because the return on the investment of our children is so high,” Antonio, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said.

About 31 percent of preschool-aged children in Ohio have access to a publicly funded pre-K program, costing families without access about $8,600 per year, according to a White House news release.

If Build Back Better meets the ink of Biden’s pen – and Ohio’s Republican-majority chambers force the governor to accept the federal dollars – pre-K classroom doors would open to an additional 151,000 kids in the state, the White House analysis said.

Antonio, who deemed herself a fierce advocate of universal pre-K, argued that kids enrolled in preschool enjoy countless benefits, like an increased likelihood of graduating and less susceptibility to substance abuse and crime.

And, as more parents wave goodbye to their preschoolers on the school bus, Antonio said universal pre-K will help get parents back into the workforce after COVID-19 shuttered job opportunities.

Nearly 60 percent of part-time or unemployed mothers with children under the age of 5 said they would return to work or work longer hours if they could send their kids to quality, affordable childcare, according to a 2021 statewide survey by Groundwork Ohio

“If we’re really going to build up the workforce tomorrow, it starts with our little pre-K kids today,” Antonio said.

But Greg Lawson, a research fellow with the conservative-leaning Buckeye Institute, said it’s not guaranteed that a universal pre-K program would lead to significant short- and long-term benefits for students.

While the Build Back Better plan covers the cost of a pre-K program for the first few years, Antonio said states are required to match 40 percent of the federal funding by year six – a cause of concern for Lawson. 

“The data is ambiguous in terms of what the actual benefit is,” Lawson said. “There’s a cost concern, but above and beyond the cost concern, is universal pre-K the right way to spend money, or are there more targeted options to better help students who are at risk or need additional resources?”

Lawson pointed to a 2022 study performed by researchers at Vanderbilt University who analyzed nearly 3,000 children from low-income families who were either randomly assigned to pre-K programs throughout Tennessee or kept on a waitlist control group.

Those who attended pre-K performed worse on state achievement tests from third through sixth grade than those assigned to a waitlist, according to the study. The study also showed pre-K students were disciplined more often and had lower attendance rates than their peers.

“I think it’s going to be challenging that they’re going to put in that kind of money, again, on something where there’s sort of a mixed bag of evidence,” Lawson said.

Ultimately, Lawson said he’s waiting to see a pre-K proposal that’s rooted in evidence and more narrow-cast to the needs of Ohio students before he’ll support throwing potentially billions of dollars toward a program.

Although data surrounding pre-K’s benefits might be obscure – and outcomes may vary depending on what variables a study is analyzing – Jamie O’Leary said overall, the evidence leans toward supporting the idea that children who attend pre-K often fare better than their peers who don’t.

“Overall, we know children benefit in terms of kindergarten readiness, social-emotional skills, a variety of indicators that help them succeed,” O’Leary, associate director of policy for Ohio State University’s early childhood research centers, the Crane Center and Schoenbaum Family Center, said.

A universal pre-K program launched in Columbus has seen successful results for children since its inception – a hopeful sign given that six in 10 preschoolers in Ohio aren’t demonstrating readiness for kindergarten based on state standards, O’Leary said.

Early Start Columbus, an initiative between the mayor’s office and the Columbus Department of Education, connects qualifying families to pre-K programs for free or reduced tuition, according to the city’s website.

A study analyzing 540 4-year-olds who attended one of the 31 early childhood programs associated with Early Start Columbus from 2018 to 2019 found that 85 percent were characterized as either demonstrating or approaching kindergarten readiness – as opposed to 59 percent of Ohio’s children already in kindergarten, according to the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy.

“High-quality pre-K is one way to get kids ready for kindergarten,” O’Leary said.

While the quality of a preschool program is measured through several factors – including rich conversation between students and teachers and exposure to books and hands-on opportunities – O’Leary said above all, instructors must be adequately supported to deliver high-quality care.

“Low wages, burnout, turnover, and morale issues,” she said. “How are we paying folks in a way that’s sustainable and investing in them and the skills that they bring as carers and nurturers and teachers?”

SB 318 currently awaits hearings before the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee, according to the Ohio Legislature’s website.

Read the full text of the bill below.