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Preschool for every child

May 07, 2017

Preschool for every child

May 07, 2017

Quality preschool a vital investment in Mahoning Valley families

Key Findings

  • Quality preschool with wraparound childcare is both an investment in children’s education and a work support that strengthens family stability
  • Preschools in Mahoning and Trumbull Counties serve just 42 percent and 44 percent of preschool age children
  • Only around half of Mahoning Valley preschools are rated by the Step-Up-To-Quality program. A quarter are high quality rated with 3 to 5 stars.
  • Home childcares serve about 750 more children, but few are quality rated
  • Center-based preschools in Mahoning Valley cost about a fifth of the typical household’s income
  • Deeper public investments are needed to make childcare affordable to families and give programs the resources they need to deliver top quality

By Michael Shields, Drew Canfield Diana Granados

Early education is vital to child development and requires quality programs. Access to early education can also enable parents to work. Investing in quality preschool programs, making them affordable, and accounting for work schedules are key to ensuring that all Mahoning Valley families with young children have a system that works for them.

Educators, families, and advocates are working to implement free or affordable preschool with the wraparound childcare that families need to participate. This report outlines the landscape, identifies challenges that limit families’ access, and costs that constrain programs in delivering top quality early education. We conclude with policy recommendations.

Preschool for every child


Investing in quality preschool programs, making them affordable, and improving wraparound childcare are key to ensuring early education for all Mahoning Valley families with young children. In Mahoning Valley, early childhood education advocates have forged alliances to improve program quality by providing staff and administrators with training. They are interested in expanding that work to secure adequate funding to make sure all families can participate.

A 2015 report by Community Advocates for Young Leaders, best known as the CAYL institute, drew on stakeholder feedback to determine the key opportunities to improve the early education landscape in Mahoning Valley. The report identified opportunities to increase quality by sharing expertise, and a collaboration was formed. The Eastern Ohio Education Partnership released work laying out the benefits of early education to a child’s development, and has been working to establish a robust preschool landscape for Mahoning Valley children.

Youngstown City Schools took a great step forward this past December by expanding their part-time preschool to full-time. Youngstown preschools are free to all three-to-five-year-olds in the city. They feature three classes with top ratings by the state’s Step-Up-To-Quality program, and others awaiting assessment.

Yet not all Mahoning Valley communities offer free full-day preschools. Limited hours leave many families turning to childcare centers or homes for preschool. Public preschools in Trumbull County served only about 13 percent of eligible children last year; Mahoning County served just 18 percent. Center-based programs range in quality. While some are excellent, they tend to be the ones with limited hours, wait-lists, and price tags too high for public childcare recipients. In-home childcares are most flexible, but few participate in the Step-Up-To-Quality program, and many forego licensure altogether. Consequently, they lack oversight and educational value varies widely.

What types of programs provide preschool?

Children aged three to five who are toilet-trained and not yet enrolled in Kindergarten are considered “preschoolers,” regardless of whether they participate in a formal program.

Families use preschool and childcare in overlapping ways, to expose their children to vital early learning experiences, and as safe care while parents work. Good programs thus serve both as educational investments in children for the future, and as community infrastructure that enables parents to be in the workforce today. Notably, while “preschoolers” are defined, preschool itself still lacks a definitive curriculum and standard practices. Quality advocates are working to change that, and deeper investments are needed to ensure that all Mahoning Valley and Ohio children have access to a quality program.

Preschool programs in Ohio can be licensed under two different departments depending on the kind of program they are. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) licenses and inspects private childcare centers and home providers. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) oversees public school or district based preschool programs. Head Start programs may operate under either licensing jurisdiction.

Preschool quality

School districts and private programs self-report providing preschool in some form, but there is no formal standard for what that includes. Typical program quality measures include staff credentials in early childhood education, particularly college degrees; curriculum planning with an emphasis on age appropriate activities and respect for the need of young children to learn through play; and low child/staff ratios. This report uses two quality indicators to assess Mahoning Valley programs: the Step-Up-To-Quality (SUTQ) “stars” program, which rates programs based primarily on educational indicators; and licensing inspection reports focused primarily on health and safety.

The Departments of Education, and Job and Family Services certify programs with proven high quality track records through the Step-Up-To-Quality (SUTQ) star rating system.[1] Participating programs can earn a 1 to 5 star rating, with 3+ star programs considered high quality. Ratings are cumulative, so programs must first earn a single star before they can earn two, and so on. Participation is now voluntary for private centers and homes.[2] It became mandatory for district preschools beginning July 2016, and center-based programs receiving public funding starting July 2020. Home based providers were granted the option to participate in 2014, but most have yet to opt in. In fact, home providers are not required to obtain licensure at all to care for up to five children, unless they receive public funding. While their number is unknown, it is clear that many such programs exist without either licenses or quality assessments such as SUTQ. Because many families choose home programs for their flexible hours of care or small size, bringing these programs into credentialing systems is vital.

While Step-Up-To-Quality provides programming quality assessments, the simpler license compliance inspections ensure that programs meet health and safety criteria. For child care center based preschools, licensing inspections are performed by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS). Inspectors review staff professional development, CPR and First Aid certification, criminal background checks; building, equipment, and vehicle safety; adequate child supervision, safety protocols for access and evacuations; and other safety concerns. Inspection reports are transparent, available online, and posted near centers entrances for parents’ review.

Mahoning County

Using ACS figures, Policy Matters Ohio estimates that there are 5,873 preschool aged children in Mahoning County, including some 973 five-year-old preschoolers.[3]. They are enrolled in programs provided by both district-based and private centers.

Mahoning County Preschools

Mahoning County preschools currently serve 42 percent of the Mahoning County preschool population, with a total enrollment of 2,548. An estimated 70 percent of these students attend full time.[4] Family childcares, in homes, serve some 500 more, though not all such programs report enrollment. See Figures 1 and 2 for details.

Preschool for every child

Mahoning County faces a special challenge in that an extremely large share of programs were reported for serious risk noncompliance violations by ODJFS in inspections from January 2015 through February 2016. Serious risk non-compliances are issues that present the greatest risk of harm to children. Mahoning County centers had such violations at 15 out of 34 private centers drawn from an earlier survey. Public preschool data were unavailable. Most such violations were for hazards such as cleaning supplies in reach of children, missing background checks, or inadequate supervision. One center was cited with child abuse which resulted in injury to the child. Also of special concern is that Mahoning County centers received a number of violations for facilities, including unsafe playground equipment and the use of space heaters. These types of violations may signal infrastructure problems that could be more difficult and costly to overcome than violations stemming from program practices.

Preschool for every child

While a number of high-quality programs exist in Mahoning County, quality varies, leaving some children in unrated or low-rated programs or ones that don’t meet health and safety benchmarks.

To overcome these challenges, deeper investments must be made. Early childhood programs are chronically strained to meet overhead costs, and reimbursement levels have fallen over the past several years. Advocates report that programs are opting out of SUTQ because meeting high standards is costly – it is mostly a matter of staffing highly skilled teachers and giving them small class sizes.


Access to quality preschool means not only that good preschools exist in the community, but that families have the ability to use them. Including childcare for families with working parents is likely the most important factor. For families needing childcare, cost can be a major challenge. Lastly, having a preschool close to home is important, especially for poor families who lack a car and must rely on proximity and public transit.

Research has found that programs that are more accessible or provide extended hours are not always the highest quality. This has also been found in Mahoning County. The top-ranked programs there offer limited hours and lack wraparound care. This restricts these programs to families that have a parent or babysitter who is able to drop off and pick up children. In Mahoning County, seven out of eight programs rated high-quality through February 2016 closed by 6:00 pm, leaving parents limited choice.[5] Not just top-rated programs close early: 22 out of 34 programs closed by 6:00pm. Notably, in Mahoning County, many programs close in the early afternoon. Programs available to families based on scheduling availability can be seen in Figure 3 below. Note that while we could not get hour information for all programs, we believe these charts are representative of the landscape.

Parents working nontraditional schedules face the most limited choices: just four programs are open evening hours until midnight. Notably, one such program has a 3-star quality rating. Hopes & Dreams Preschool and Daycare is open 24 hours a day, and could serve as a model of how to deliver both access and quality to area families. Flexible childcare hours are a major factor driving some families to use home childcares, making it vital that these programs be licensed and quality rated.

Preschool for every child

Early education for every child

According to the American Community Survey, there were 3,909 children enrolled in early childhood programs in Mahoning County. This figure includes children under the age of 3 in infant and toddler programs. This report finds that approximately 2,458 preschoolers are currently enrolled in preschool programs in Mahoning County. This means that an estimated 40 percent of preschool-age children are being served by either a part- or full-time program in Mahoning County. Childcare centers are serving 1,290 preschoolers, while district-based programs are serving 1,082 preschoolers. This is certainly an overestimation, due to children being enrolled in more than one program. No public data are kept on the magnitude of such dual enrollments. In addition, 119 home childcare centers serve 501 children, whose ages are not reported. Of those programs, some are proactively embracing quality: eleven programs have been quality rated, and one has been certified high-quality with 3-stars.

Policy Matters evaluated existing programs for preschoolers in Mahoning County. Using take-up rates of 65 to 80 percent, consistent with national trends when preschool is available to all, Mahoning County could bring preschool access to between 1,440 and 2,330 additional children.

Childcare centers had 1,007 open spots and districts had 527 spots in February 2016. With take-up rates of 65 percent, existing programs could now accommodate all unserved families: an estimated 1,446 children. To accommodate 80 percent take-up (2,327), centers and schools would need to boost licensing capacity and add staff. Policy Matters estimates that between 110 and 180 new staff members would need to be hired to comply with licensing requirements of staff to child ratios. Given that some families are now using home childcares, 65 percent take-up may be the more realistic scenario.

Licensing capacity is limited by building occupancy limits in addition to staff levels. Fortunately, public and private preschools do have space for all Mahoning County children. This means that providing access to all area children is possible without additional space to house programs.

Trumbull County


According to the American Community Survey (ACS) 5,323 preschoolers lived in Trumbull County in 2014, including an estimated 4,441 three- and four-year olds, and 902 five-year olds.[6] Based on ACS figures, just 44 percent were enrolled in preschool.

Preschool for every child

Like their neighbors in Mahoning County, Trumbull County preschoolers are in programs run by either public school districts or private centers, many of which offer extended-day childcare. Head Start programs may operate under either structure, and some families choose home settings, which tend to offer good wraparound childcare, but whose preschool services vary.[7] There are 51 preschools operating in schools and private centers in Trumbull County as of December 2016, serving about 2,056 students. This number is certainly high, due to children being enrolled in more than one program. In addition, 47 licensed home care centers operate in the county. They reported serving a total of 254 children, but it is not possible to say how many are preschoolers.

Among Trumbull County’s 51 public and private preschools, 28 had earned quality ratings by December 2016, while 23 were not participating or had earned no stars. Nineteen preschools had been rated high quality with a 3-star rating or higher (see Figure 4). In addition, eight home centers have opted into Step-Up-To-Quality, and one has earned a high-quality 3-star rating.

Like in Mahoning County, top rated preschools in Trumbull County offer less flexible schedules on average than those with no rating. The average unrated program was open 11 hours per day, while four and five star-rated programs were open just eight, limiting access to families with working parents. Figure 5 shows the options available to parents based on how early they are able to pick up their child from preschool.

Trumbull County centers scored higher marks on health and safety than those in Mahoning County in licensing inspections conducted through February 2016. Two of 30 were cited with serious non-compliance violations,[8] which present substantial hazards to children. These centers operate 12 hours per day, making them likely choices for working parents. Boosting their quality and adding more extended hours are vital. Again, much of the challenge rests in limited funding.

Preschool for every child

Early education for every child

Among around 5,343 preschoolers living in Trumbull County, 2374 (44 percent) were enrolled in preschool during the year 2014, according to the ACS.[9]

If preschool with wraparound childcare was made affordable to all families, many more children would likely enroll. Assuming take-up rates of 65 to 80 percent, consistent with national averages for universal preschool initiatives, the Trumbull County preschool system could provide access to between 1,576 and 2,377 un-served children. This estimate overstates children now attending preschool in school and childcare settings due to dual enrollment, but understates total children enrolled in early education programs, since it does not include family centers based in homes. Home childcares reported serving around 250 children in December 2016, though some did not report enrollment.

Unserved children now exceed available slots under existing licensure, so Trumbull County preschools would need to expand capacity to serve all children, even if public schools fill their 38 percent capacity now unused. Building space is already adequate. Adding staff is the key change most programs would need to make.

Preschool for every child


School districts and Head Start programs in Trumbull and Mahoning Counties provide free preschool for some families and Youngstown schools took a great step forward last year in expanding to full-day preschool. Yet not all families can take advantage of a free or affordable, quality program. Early education has to be paired with safe childcare that covers the hours parents work.

Families use early childhood programs both for the education and for safe caregiving while parents work. For those families that turn to centers or homes for preschool including childcare, or supplement a district preschool with childcare, the challenge is cost.

High costs put childcare and private preschool out of reach for many families. The median family in Mahoning County earns $41,350. In Trumbull County, families similarly earn $43,226 at the median. The cost of care for a single preschooler in each county commands an enormous share of the family’s income, at $7,550 in Mahoning County, and $9,370 in Trumbull. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers childcare affordable if it costs less than 10 percent of a family’s budget, and has considered revising that benchmark down to 7 percent. These costs are more than double that, and would absorb around a fifth of the family’s budget –for one child.

Families can receive public help to cover some costs. But parents have to earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line to initially become eligible. If parents’ job situations change, they can lose eligibility quickly. This makes it hard for preschools that offer wraparound services to maintain a stable class. Policy Matters has documented the cliffs, canyons and cracks that characterize this landscape. In addition to low eligibility ceilings, low state reimbursement rates mean that families receiving assistance can only access about a third of centers – the others cost more than the state will allow.

Public investment is needed

This funding model not only limits access to families, it creates barriers to program quality. State efforts are pushing to mandate higher quality, but low reimbursement rates force some centers to drop out of the Step-Up-To-Quality program, still voluntary for now. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that the state pay a rate high enough to cover 75 percent of programs. Yet Ohio reimburses at a rate so low that less than a third of programs are affordable to families on subsidized care. Since those accepting childcare vouchers will have to comply with SUTQ beginning in 2020, this push to do more with the same strained funding may cause even more programs to turn away families getting public childcare support.

Stable relationships with their teachers are vital for children, especially those most at-risk due to poverty at home. Hiring and retaining skilled, stable teachers so that young children get quality care is expensive. Low pay contributes to nationwide, teacher turnover rates averaging 27 percent in private centers. Investment in staff makes a big difference: Head Start teachers earn 50 percent more nationwide, and have turnover rates of just 10 percent. Center-based preschool teachers earn less than 97 percent of all Ohio workers. These teachers are often poor themselves.

Funding must be increased to reward participation in Step-Up-To-Quality. Governor Kasich’s budget proposal does not increase funding once inflation is considered. The legislature should substantially increase funding so that the state can meaningfully raise reimbursement rates, and adequately compensate all programs for reaching costly quality benchmarks.

Policy recommendations

Expand Access

  • Increase public preschool infrastructure and extend hours. Highly-rated public preschools now operate in Mahoning Valley, but part-time hours mean many working families must seek other options.
  • Raise the initial eligibility ceiling for publicly-funded childcare to 200 percent of the poverty level. This ensures that families don’t lose care if a parent must change jobs.
  • Implement 12 month continuous eligibility for childcare. Align centers with public preschools, and prevent disruptions to children’s early learning environments.
  • Reimburse programs at the 75th percentile market rate. Provide funding so that 75 percent of all programs are affordable, giving families access to the best quality.

Improve Quality

  • Bring programs into full health and safety compliance. Ensure that every child has access to a safe school or center with no serious non-compliance violations. Implement licensing requirements for home providers. Consider restricting funding to only those programs with no serious violations.
  • Bring all programs into Step-Up-To-Quality. Full participation is already being phased in. Increase efforts to bring the home providers that some families use into participation. Attach new funding to meeting benchmarks to overcome the high costs programs face to implement improved quality standards.
  • Tap existing expertise and infrastructure to offer high quality preschool for all area three- and four-year olds. Mahoning Valley has a rich community of early childhood education stakeholders already sharing knowledge and advocating for adequate resources; and enough programs to serve all area children. Some are highly rated, but many must be made safe and higher quality.
  • Layer funding to maximize program resources. Federal funding for Head Start often supplements public childcare funding distributed through the state. This enhances quality, but the Governor recently proposed outlawing layering. Protect layered funding so programs are paid for all the services they provide.


Mahoning Valley has the resources to provide quality preschool to all area three- and four-year-old children. These resources include committed experts and advocates already collaborating to make universal, quality preschool a reality, and a provider landscape of preschools, centers, and home providers able to serve all children in the community. The key challenge to delivering quality programming is bringing all of these programs up to Step-Up-To-Quality Standards, and urgently bringing them up to health and safety parameters, especially in Mahoning County. Because public preschools tend to hire highly skilled teachers and provide developmentally appropriate learning experiences, expanding public options provides a strong opportunity to deliver more high quality options, as does layering so that Head Start providers can use all available resources. Addressing the need for wrap-around childcare will be critical to enabling the families in greatest need to participate.


Policy Matters Ohio thanks the Wean Foundation for generous support that made this report possible. Special thanks also to the Eastern Ohio Education Partnership for input and convening stakeholders, to Child Care Connection for data and great feedback, and to Pam Perrino for sharing rich knowledge of the early childhood community in Mahoning Valley.


Data and method

This report uses detailed public data on childcare center based preschools licensed by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and preschool data compiled by the Department of Education through a data request. SUTQ and license capacity figures, courtesy of Child Care Connection, are from December 2016, and other figures, taken directly from licensing inspection reports, are current through February 2016.

Mahoning Valley preschools are broken out into Trumbull and Mahoning Counties for regional specificity, and maps for each county are included in the report.

[1] The program becomes mandatory for district preschools in July 2016 and center based programs in July 2020.

[2] Despite the requirement, the ODJFS had not yet rated all programs by December 2016.

[3] Policy Matters Ohio estimated the number of preschoolers on a typical school day accounting for an average share of five-year-olds whose birthdays fall after the cut-off date to enroll in Kindergarten, and a 6 percent “red shirting” rate, when parents choose to hold back an eligible child from Kindergarten to give him or her an extra year to mature before entering school. That rate is consistent with national averages.

[4] Population served from ODJFS survey, December 2016, courtesy of Child Care Connection. Share of students full-time from ODJFS licensing inspection reports, January 2015 through February 2016.

[5] These figures are taken from ODJFS licensing inspection reports of private centers conducted January 2015 through February 2016. They do not include public preschools, for which similar data were not available. One center has been culled from the survey due to a child abuse citation.

[6] Policy Matters Ohio estimated the number of preschoolers on a typical school day accounting for an average share of five-year-olds whose birthdays fall after the cut-off date to enroll in Kindergarten, and a 6 percent “red shirting” rate, when parents choose to hold back an eligible child from Kindergarten to give him or her an extra year to mature before entering school. That rate is consistent with national averages.

[7] District-run programs are licensed and inspected by the Ohio Department of Education, while non-district affiliated programs fall under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

[8] According to Bureau of Child Care Policy & Operational Support (ODJFS), for a program to be considered for a Step-Up-To-Quality (SUTQ) rating, it can’t have been cited for a six point Serious Risk Non-Compliance or have non-compliances that total twelve points within the twelve months prior to the registration date and between the registration date and the awarded star rating.

[9] These figures are estimates because populations are reported by cohort, necessitating a breakdown of children falling into the preschool age group from the two cohorts 0-4 and 5-9. See discussion of method in note 1.


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