Recapping the legislative session – sometimes inaction is OK

When it comes to education, the 2012 session of the Indiana General Assembly may be best remembered for the bills that died, not for the ones that passed.

Lawmakers did accomplish one notable deed, boosting state funding for full-day kindergarten to where parents will no longer have to pay for the privilege. To which we say: It’s about time.

As for what lawmakers didn’t do, the following measures were apparently given serious consideration but died a merciful death:

— Allowing school boards to mandate the teaching of “creation science”
— Prescribing standards for the singing of the National Anthem at school events
— Barring schools from starting fall classes before Labor Day
— Ordering a return to a single-class high school basketball tournament
— Requiring schools to teach cursive writing as part of the curriculum

You have to think that some legislators must have too much time on their hands to come up with such ideas.

Full-day kindergarten was part of House Enrolled Act 1376, which passed right before lawmakers adjourned early Saturday morning. It increased the state grant for full-day kindergarten to $2,400 per child – up from $1,190.60. Schools should no longer have to charge full-day kindergarten fees, which in some districts have exceeded $1,000. In fact, the bill prohibits such fees starting this fall.

Gov. Mitch Daniels identified full-day kindergarten as a priority six years ago, but it got sidetracked by economic difficulties and, some would argue, other priorities. Continue reading

Indiana Democrats look to score points on education

Kudos to Indiana House Democrats for making education a big part of their agenda for 2012. Not that their proposals are likely to pass – Democrats are a minority in the House and even more so in the Senate. And their ideas cost money, which the Republican majority won’t agree to spend.

But sometimes you introduce legislation to make a point, or to generate debate, or to set the stage for progress in future years. And the Democratic proposals make sense on all three of those counts.

While Indiana Republicans boast of enacting the most far-reaching educational reforms in the nation last year, they left important business unfinished. Indiana is one of only 10 states that don’t provide public funding for pre-kindergarten programs. And the state doesn’t fully fund all-day kindergarten, so parents in many school districts must pay tuition for their kids to attend kindergarten for more than half-days.

House Democrats propose providing full state funding for full-day kindergarten and creating a voucher program to help low-income parents send their children to preschool.

The centerpiece of the Dems’ education platform is a proposal to cap class sizes at levels as low as 18 for kindergarten and 22 for upper elementary grades. Small classes are popular with parents and teachers, but this absolutely will not happen – it is way too expensive. Florida voters adopted similar class-size caps with a constitutional amendment in 2002, but the state has struggled to pay for the initiative.

Class size does matter, at least at the levels of reductions that Indiana Democrats are suggesting. But debate continues on whether small classes are the best use of educational dollars.

Indiana among the leaders in free-lunch numbers

A New York Times report on the increasing number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches suggests the recent economic downturn has hit Indiana children particularly hard.

Indiana is one of only four states in the nation where the share of fourth-graders who qualify for subsidized lunches increased by at least 10 percentage points between 2007 and 2011, the report says. (Florida, Nevada and Ohio are the others). And it’s the only state in the Great Lakes region where more than half of all fourth-grade students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Some 51.1 percent of fourth-graders in Indiana qualify for subsidized lunches, according to interactive maps included with the article.

Research: Investing in pre-kindergarten pays dividends

A new report from the Center for Public Education suggests that Indiana is failing its youngest citizens by refusing to develop high-quality, public pre-kindergarten programs.

The research report, “Starting Out Right: Pre-K and Kindergarten,” says students who attend both pre-k and kindergarten fare significantly better than those who don’t on third-grade reading tests, an important predictor of future academic success. It also finds that, facing a choice between providing pre-k and full-day kindergarten, states would do better to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs.

Students who attend both pre-k and half-day kindergarten do better than those who attend full-day kindergarten but not pre-k, the report says. The gains from pre-k are especially strong for children from low-income families, blacks, Hispanics and English language learners.

The report draws on a federal data base that tracked more than 21,000 children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The Center for Public Education is an initiative of the National School Boards Association.

The author of the report, senior policy analyst Jim Hull, says the paper shouldn’t be read to endorse a move away from full-day kindergarten.

“Especially for traditional disadvantaged groups, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are investments that pay remarkable dividends not only for schools, but for communities,” Hull writes. “We should strive to give all children access to both high-quality pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten. The research is clear that this is the best option.”

The Indiana legislature this year boosted funding for full-day kindergarten with the intent of making it available in all public school districts. However, the state doesn’t fully fund full-day kindergarten, with the result that parents often have to pay for the program.

And Indiana is one of only 10 states that don’t provide public pre-k programs, according to data from the National Institute for Early Education Research. Florida, the supposed model for the education reforms championed by Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett, provides public pre-k for 68 percent of its 4-year-olds, according to NIEER.

Bennett told a Bloomington audience last month that Indiana really ought to expand access to pre-k, but there’s no money right now to do so. But as Kara Kenney of WRTV in Indianapolis reported, Indiana was one of only 15 states that chose not to apply this fall for federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants ranging from $50 million to $100 million to expand early-learning opportunities.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron told Kenney it would have been a waste of effort to apply, because Indiana wasn’t going to win. But if Indiana isn’t in a position to compete for funding to expand early-learning programs, the question is: Why not?

Indiana kindergarten funding still falls short of costs

Full-day kindergarten funding for Indiana schools is expected to be $1,190.60 per student for the 2011-12 school year, the Indiana Department of Education announced this month.

That’s a little more than the $1,030 per student that schools received last year. But it’s nowhere near enough to cover the difference between half-day kindergarten, which the state funds, and a full-day program.

That means many parents can expect to again pay fees if they enroll their children in full-day kindergarten, just as they have in the past.

When Gov. Mitch Daniels announced increased funding for full-day kindergarten in April, the headline over his news release said, “Governor calls for increased education funding, completion of full day kindergarten.” The Republican-controlled legislature boosted annual funding for full-day kindergarten to $81.9 million from $58.5 million.

Some people thought that meant the program would be “fully funded” – but no. The increase enabled some school districts that hadn’t offered FDK in the past to provide it. But per-student funding increased by only about 15 percent.

Most Indiana schools spend around $6,000 per student to fund their operations. At that rate, you could argue the cost difference between half-day and full-day kindergarten is about $3,000 per student. The state grant covers less than half of that.

Some districts have used grants and federal funds to provide free full-day kindergarten in high-poverty schools and for low-income parents. But many have charged fees for parents who can afford it, and they’re likely to continue to do so. (In the Monroe County Community School Corp., the fee last year was $1,300).

The Indiana Constitution calls for a “general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” Nothing says the state has to fund kindergarten. But as the constitution suggests, free public education for all is an ideal that’s worth trying to accomplish. For young children, we’ve still got a way to go.

Full-day kindergarten funding: Good news, not nirvana

No question, let’s give credit to Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican legislators for proposing to use some of a projected bump in state revenue to increase education funding and expand access to full-day kindergarten.

But let’s stop short of canonizing the governor just yet. Remember that:

— The proposed increase in full-day kindergarten funding – from $58.5 million a year to $81.9 million a year — doesn’t mean the state will cover the entire cost of the program. In some districts, parents will still pay fees.

— The governor and Republican leaders propose increasing total K-12 spending by $150 million over two years. But that’s less than one-fourth of the more than $300 million per year that the governor cut from education spending in December 2009.

— Indiana school corporations will lose tens of millions of dollars as a result of legislation to expand charter schools and implement private-school vouchers. Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, told the New York Times that that the voucher bill alone will cost public schools $92 million.

— Changes being made in the school funding formula mean that growing school districts will see modest increases in state funding, but schools that are losing students may see additional cuts.

Daniels made full-day kindergarten a priority back in 2006, but budget problems kept him from following through. Now, he says, the current proposal will “complete the extension of full day kindergarten (FDK) to every school district in the state.” State Superintendent Tony Bennett says the money will expand FDK to the 25 percent of kindergartners who now don’t have access to it.

But if the task is being completed, that suggests Daniels never intended to fully fund the program.

This year, the state provides $1,030 per student to support full-day kindergarten. Next year that will increase to $1,050 per student, according to an analysis by the Indiana Association of School Business Officials of the proposed Senate budget – which includes the increased full-day kindergarten funding.

That doesn’t come close to covering the difference in cost between half-day and full-day kindergarten – which is why the Monroe County Community School Corp., for example, charges a $1,300 fee for full-day kindergarten to parents who are not low-income.

Finally, even with broadened access to full-day kindergarten, Indiana will remain one of eight states that don’t provide funding for public pre-kindergarten programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.