Indiana and preschool: Here we go again

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. Continue reading

Pre-kindergarten: the missing piece in Indiana education reform

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett have proposed varied and aggressive education reforms for the state legislature to consider. One thing that’s missing: Any mention of early childhood education.

As the Indianapolis Star reported last week, Indiana trails most other states when it comes to including young children in its education system. It’s one of only eight states that provide zero funding for public pre-kindergarten programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“Of all the things you could do, preschool probably has the largest impact on school success,” Steve Barnett, co-director of the Rutgers University-based NIEER, told the Star’s Scott Elliott.

The advocacy group Pre-K Now cites studies that have found high-quality pre-kindergarten programs increase high-school graduation rates, improve scores on standardized tests, reduce crime rates and produce more productive adults. Every dollar invested in high-quality pre-K, it says, saves taxpayers $7.

The problem, of course, is finding that $1 to invest now, when the economy is struggling and state leaders are focused on keeping taxes low. “I think we as a state must do it,” Superintendent Bennett told the Star, referring to investing in early education. “But it is going to be very challenging to have it become part of this legislative agenda on the basis of money.”

The Star article also notes that Indiana doesn’t require kids to start school until the fall term of the school year in which they will turn 7 — later than two-thirds of the states. Schools have to offer kindergarten, but children aren’t required to attend.

Legislation has been introduced that would require students to start school in the year during which they will turn 6. But the bill may not go anywhere if lawmakers determine it will cost the state money.