Let’s hear it for the Indiana Senate Democrats. They may be few in number, but that’s not stopping them from putting forward ideas and acting as if they should be taken seriously.
Last week, caucus leader Tim Lanane rolled out a proposal for universal, state-funded pre-kindergarten. Lanane admitted the idea isn’t likely to be approved in 2014, which isn’t a state budget year. But he told the Indianapolis Star that he wants to start a conversation, and now is the time to do it.
Republicans have a super-majority in both the Senate and the House, so any pre-K program will need GOP support to pass. Last year, when state business and media leaders were sounding off about the importance of high-quality preschool, the House approved a state-funded pilot pre-K program. It got derailed in the Senate because of concerns about its $7 million price tag.
But the bill the House passed wasn’t a public pre-K program but a voucher program that would have given state money to private and church-based preschools. It would even have provided another entryway to Indiana’s controversial K-12 voucher program.
Senate Democrats want to create a program in which local school districts can work with the Indiana Department of Education to open pre-K classrooms, with funding from the state. They also want to lower the compulsory school attendance age from 7 to 5 – in other words, require kindergarten.
Their plan mirrors the Preschool for All initiative that President Barack Obama unveiled this year in his State of the Union address, a plan that doesn’t seem to be getting any traction in the Republican-controlled House or the filibuster-hobbled Senate.
Indiana Democrats cite studies that find children who attend high-quality pre-K programs are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, earn a decent living, pay taxes, etc. Widely cited research has concluded that every $1 invested in good pre-K yields from $7 to $13 in returns. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist, spells out the human and economic arguments for pre-K on a dedicated website. The National Institute for Early Education Research is another source.
Of course, opponents will find studies that contradict those findings. And the price tag of doing pre-K right – the Star quotes Lanane as saying it could be as much as the $197 million Indiana pays for full-day kindergarten – will make the program a tough sell.
Legislators should be continually reminded, though, that 40 other states have managed to fund pre-K programs. Why are Indiana’s young children less valuable than theirs?