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.

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Pre-K and vouchers: not a good combination

Excuse the language, but Indiana House Republicans served up a classic shit sandwich with House Bill 1004, their legislation to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program. Stuffed inside the bill is language that would provide yet another route for students to become eligible for the state’s school voucher program.

Under the legislation, students who participate in the pre-K program for low-income families would become eligible for a voucher to help pay private school tuition. They would stay eligible as long as their family income continued to meet the program’s requirements.

The House Education Committee approved the bill last week on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the education panel.

Seen as pure politics, HB 1004 of a slick move. Democrats have pushed for years to expand state support for pre-K. But as backers of public schools, they oppose vouchers. They’re in the awkward position of having to vote against one of their long-time priorities.

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Gregg makes case for ‘preschool for all’

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.

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Head Start works – and keeps working

Head Start has been around since the 1960s, and debating its effectiveness has become a sort of litmus test on how people feel about the role of government. Democrats tend to support the preschool program. Republicans are bound by conservative orthodoxy to claim it doesn’t work.

But new research finds that, not only does Head Start work, it produces benefits that compound for generations. The analysis, by Lauren Bauer and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of the Hamilton Project, was published this month. Findings include:

  • Head Start increases the likelihood that children will go on to graduate from high school, attend college and earn postsecondary degrees or certificates.
  • The program improves social, emotional and behavioral development, resulting in better self-control and improved self-esteem when the children grow up.
  • Head Start kids are more likely as adults to engage in positive parenting practices like reading to their children, teaching them letters and numbers, and showing them affection.

Some of the gains were especially pronounced for African-American and Latino children who attended Head Start, the Hamilton Project researchers found.

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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. Continue reading

Indiana’s pre-K bill smells of politics

There’s bipartisan support for making Indiana the 42nd state in the nation to fund pre-kindergarten. Wouldn’t it be nice if legislators produced a bipartisan bill to make it happen? Apparently that’s too much to ask, at least for now.

House Bill 1004, approved last week by the House Education Committee, creates a pilot program to help fund preschool for 4-year-olds from low-income families. But it also opens another gateway to Indiana’s K-12 private school voucher program, already one of the most expansive in the country.

Under the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Bob Behning of Indianapolis, children who take part in the state preschool program would qualify for vouchers once they hit kindergarten. Until now, vouchers have gone to students who transfer from public schools or who live in an attendance area for a public school that gets an F on the state grading system.

As the Indiana State Teachers Association said, there are questions about the pre-K proposal, but “one thing is clear in the bill and that is it will become a ‘feeder system’ for the K-12 private school voucher schools.” Continue reading

Pence should reach across aisle for preschool support

Gov. Mike Pence’s support for state-funded preschool could turn out to be a breakthrough for Indiana. It would be nice if he didn’t call his proposal a voucher plan. But its name matters less than its content, and we’re still waiting to see what that will be.

Here’s a suggestion: If the governor is serious about preschool, he should craft a plan that Democrats and public education advocates, not just voucher proponents, can support.

A lot of Indiana Republicans are from the old school that thinks government has no business spending money on early childhood education. They don’t buy into the many studies that show high-quality preschool makes a difference for kids. They’d prefer for every 4-year-old to be at home with Mommy while Daddy goes to work.

It took the state’s GOP leaders five years to approve funding for full-day kindergarten. And they still haven’t agreed that children need to be in school before age 7.

These folks can’t be counted on to support a state preschool program, even if it’s called a voucher program and even if parents can spend the money at private or church-based preschools as well as public preschools. Continue reading