Pre-K expansion still faces hurdles

An Indiana University research center released a detailed report last week recommending Indiana expand its pre-kindergarten pilot program and explaining how 10 others states have done just that. But on the same day, a state Senate committee slashed funding for pre-K expansion to almost nothing.

And so it goes here in the 201st year of Indiana statehood. We are determined to pinch pennies as tightly as we can, even if it means depriving our youngest citizens of the education they deserve.

The report, from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU, was produced for the State Board of Education. It describes Indiana’s nascent pre-K program – which serves about 1,600 4-year-olds in five of the state’s 92 counties – and contrasts it with programs in other states that started small and grew.

The programs vary in scope, student eligibility and academic requirements. Not surprisingly, states that spend the most money serve the most students. Georgia, for example, provides pre-K in 100 percent of its school districts. Massachusetts, which got a later start, serves 25 percent of districts. Other states examined are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s pilot pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, is available only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. It was created in 2014 and spends $10 million per year.

The CEEP report cites research that finds students who participate in high-quality pre-K do better in school and are more successful as adults. States get a positive return on the investment, gaining tax revenue and spending less in the long run on special education, prisons and public benefits.

When it comes to recommendations, the report doesn’t get specific, but it calls on the state to spend more money and expand the pilot program beyond the five counties currently served. It suggests Indiana look into alternative pre-K funding sources, such as lottery revenue, and pay increased attention to ensuring the quality of private pre-K programs that get state funding.

Just as the CEEP report was dropping via an IU news release, the Senate Appropriations was voting to slash the additional annual funding in a pre-K expansion bill from $10 million to $3 million.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has called for doubling state spending on pre-K from $10 million to $20 million and for extending the pilot program to five more counties. A coalition of civic and business groups led by United Way of Central Indiana is calling for a $50 million expansion of the program.

The Indiana House, meanwhile, is advancing a bill that doubles pre-K funding but ties it to an expansion of Indiana’s highly problematic private school voucher program.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, reportedly pooh-poohed the value of pre-K as he proposed reining in the program’s expansion.

“All it does is alleviate the responsibility of the parent to prepare the child for education,” he said, according to Indiana Public Media.

Kenley lives in and represents the bubble of affluence that is Hamilton County, so you could almost imagine he might believe that. But it’s not likely. He’s not stupid. And neither, as Indiana lawmakers go, is he especially mean-spirited. Maybe some kind of game is being played, and Kenley is laying down markers that he can use to his advantage later on. Even so, his actions are discouraging.

Indiana legislators may yet do the right thing and expand pre-K with no voucher strings attached. But there are no guarantees. And when it comes to early education, we are far behind the rest of the nation. Our state’s youngest children deserve better.

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