Gov. Mike Pence’s support for state-funded preschool could turn out to be a breakthrough for Indiana. It would be nice if he didn’t call his proposal a voucher plan. But its name matters less than its content, and we’re still waiting to see what that will be.
Here’s a suggestion: If the governor is serious about preschool, he should craft a plan that Democrats and public education advocates, not just voucher proponents, can support.
A lot of Indiana Republicans are from the old school that thinks government has no business spending money on early childhood education. They don’t buy into the many studies that show high-quality preschool makes a difference for kids. They’d prefer for every 4-year-old to be at home with Mommy while Daddy goes to work.
It took the state’s GOP leaders five years to approve funding for full-day kindergarten. And they still haven’t agreed that children need to be in school before age 7.
These folks can’t be counted on to support a state preschool program, even if it’s called a voucher program and even if parents can spend the money at private or church-based preschools as well as public preschools. And they for sure can’t be relied upon to cough up the needed tax dollars. Remember, it was Republican leaders in the state Senate who shot down a modest preschool pilot program in the last legislative session.
Democrats, meanwhile, may want to hold their fire on Pence’s plan until they see the details. It would be nice, sure, if Indiana were to fund universal public preschool, along the lines of President Barack Obama’s Preschool for All initiative. But as Terry Spradlin, then with IU’s Center on Evaluation and Education Policy, told School Matters a year ago, that won’t happen in the current political climate.
Northwestern University professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach recently reported on a study of preschool programs in Oklahoma and Georgia. Oklahoma has universal public preschool. Georgia has a voucher system similar to what Pence is proposing. Both are effective, she said.
There are big questions, of course, in designing the program. How much funding will parents get? Will the state pay for full-day or half-day preschool? What does Pence mean when he says preschools must meet “specified accountability standards”?
But there’s solid evidence that preschool benefits kids. If Nixon could go to China, Mike Pence can develop a preschool program that wins bipartisan support and serves Hoosier children for years to come.