Ritz hits the mark with pre-K proposal

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz hit the nail on the head with her call for expanding state-funded pre-kindergarten programs to all Indiana school districts.

Part of the Vision 2020 initiative that Ritz unveiled this week, the universal pre-K proposal makes sense educationally and politically. And it puts pressure on Republican Gov. Mike Pence to come up with a more ambitious plan than anything he has supported to date.

Ritz, a Democrat, should also get credit for putting “equity in student access to resources and support” at the top of her Vision 2020 priorities list. It’s not yet clear exactly what that encompasses, but Ritz suggested it will include closing the “digital divide” between rich and poor schools, ending racial disparities in school discipline and providing fair funding for schools. All are all worthy goals.

The superintendent’s pre-kindergarten initiative, framed as a legislative agenda approaching next year’s budget session of the Indiana General Assembly, pledges to “make high quality pre-K available within the boundaries of every school corporation in the state of Indiana by 2020.”

There’s consensus among Indiana’s education and business leaders that access to strong pre-kindergarten programs is important. There’s also widespread support for the idea from academic experts – check out the website of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who is on an all-out crusade to persuade policymakers of the economic and social benefits of high-quality pre-K.

But Indiana lags far behind the rest of the country. The state launched a cautious pre-K voucher pilot program, called On My Way Pre-K, in 2014-15. But it serves only a few hundred students in five counties. Legislators and the governor have so far balked at expending the program.

The National Institute for Early Education Research, in its annual State of Preschool report, counts Indiana as one of only eight states without a statewide pre-K program.

Pence was widely criticized in 2014 when he rejected an opportunity to apply for $80 million in federal preschool development grants, money that would have let Indiana sharply expand pre-K access.

Last week, however, the governor announced he had written to Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, expressing his interest in applying for federal pre-K funding. You almost wonder if he was tipped off that Ritz would be coming out in support of universal pre-K and decided to step to the front of the parade.

Ritz told reporters her plan for statewide pre-K would cost $150 million and could be funded with federal grants, reversions of unspent state budget appropriations and reallocation of state dollars.

“The funds are there if the political will exists,” she said.

It’s an ambitious plan, but remember that two of the first comprehensive, statewide pre-K programs were implemented by Oklahoma and Georgia. If those very conservative states can do it, so can Indiana.

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