Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg has a detailed education platform on his campaign website. Right at the top is this: “Establish statewide, optional preschool for all.”
That’s a bold pledge in a state that has long dragged its feet on early childhood education. Indiana was late to enact full-day kindergarten. It didn’t provide any pre-K funding until 2014, when it created a small pilot program for low-income families in five counties. And the state’s Republican leaders have been reluctant to expand that program, despite its support from business and civic groups.
Gregg notes that children who attend high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, finish college and get a skilled job. They’re less likely to end up in prison or on government assistance programs. The Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman argues that pre-K programs pay for themselves and generate economic benefits for society.
“Forty other states have figured out how to fund pre-school – so can Indiana,” the campaign site says.
Gregg also faults Republican Gov. Mike Pence – and by extension, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, the GOP candidate for governor – for turning his back on a potential $80 million federal preschool grant.
Holcomb says he wants to go slow on expanding state-funded preschool and limit it to low-income families. The split reflects a legitimate philosophical disagreement: Should states create universal pre-K programs that are open to all children, regardless of family income? Or should they focus spending on programs for those with the greatest need.
One argument for Gregg’s approach is that preschool for all gives more families a stake in the program, creating a stronger base of support. As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tells Dana Goldstein for an article in the Atlantic, “anything that has a broad constituency will also have more sustainability.”
Another argument is that it’s good to have preschools that serve children from a range of backgrounds rather than segregating kids into public programs for the poor and private programs for the affluent.
Not that universal public pre-K wouldn’t face the same issues of equity and segregation that plague K-12 education. Goldstein’s excellent story on New York’s Pre-K for All initiative makes that clear. But universal pre-K, like universal public education, is likely to better reflect a diverse society.
Paying for pre-K could be a challenge in Indiana. Gregg estimates the cost at $150 million a year and says the state can repurpose money going to the Indiana Department of Education and provide grants to school districts that establish public-private partnerships. That’s a bit vague.
But state-supported pre-K for all children isn’t a radical idea. It has been around for years, and Indiana keeps falling further behind as Republican states like Georgia and Oklahoma have led the way.
Gregg and Glenda Ritz, the Democratic candidate for superintendent of public instruction, are right to put preschool at the top of their agenda. The election will decide if they get to try to implement it.