Signs are good that Indiana could make progress on state-funded preschool in the 2014 session of the state legislature. But signs have been good before, and there’s been little progress to date.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, in his organization day remarks Tuesday, listed early childhood education as one of four issues that “must be our top priorities this session.” And the influential state Chamber of Commerce, in its legislative playbook, cited Indiana’s “critical need for improved preschool opportunities, especially for low-income children whose families may not have the means to provide a high-quality preschool experience or to provide needed learning opportunities in the home.”
But it’s not like the chamber is going whole hog for state-funded preschool. It supports “a framework for the future development of publicly funded preschool initiatives for low-income families.” The programs need to be “focused on those families with greatest need, limited to initiatives that maintain parental choice, focused on concrete learning outcomes and integrated with reforms at the elementary school level …” Lots of caveats there.
Some might argue the legislature created such a framework last spring when it authorized a matching-grant program to help low-income families pay for preschool. But it budgeted only $2 million a year – enough, according to the Family and Social Service Administration, to help about 2 percent of the nearly 22,000 4-year-olds living in poverty in the state.
The House voted last year for a $7 million preschool pilot program, but the Senate balked at the idea. According to Scott Elliott at Chalkbeat Indiana, Bosma is looking to take the same approach again, but he’s hoping for backing this year from Gov. Mike Pence.
Senate Democrats laid out a detailed proposal for publicly funded preschool two months ago. Maybe that helped get attention for the issue. But Republicans control the governor’s office and have walkout-proof majorities in the House and Senate. They call the shots.
Indiana remains one of 10 or so states that invest essentially no state money in preschool. Given the strong research evidence of social and economic benefits of high-quality early childhood education, this should be an embarrassment. But it’s a longstanding issue with us Hoosiers: We want to do the right thing. We just don’t want to pay for it.