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Race to the Top $$$? Don't bother, Indiana

The Department of Education announced this week a new competition for Race to the Top funds that will belatedly address one of President Obama's campaign promises: A commitment to early childhood education.

Indiana officials shouldn't bother to apply. The state is so far behind in promoting early learning that it can't possibly make a case worthy of consideration.

"Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive early learning education reform," according to the federal DOE. The emphasis will be on increasing "the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged children in each age group of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs."

There has been no effort on the part of state-level education officials to enroll any low-income and disadvantaged children in high-quality early learning programs. Indiana is one of a handful of states that spends no money on preschool. The only work in extending early childhood education to children from low-income families is being done by school districts at their own expense, by Head Start, by some nonprofit groups and by state child-care officials, who wisely adopted the Early Childhood Alliance's Pathways to Quality program as a statewide model.

Most Indiana officials, including Gov. Mitch Daniels, have treated early learning programs as some sort of an extravagance, reserved for the middle- and upper-income families who can pay for it themselves. The administration and Republican-controlled legislature managed to steer a few more dollars to full-day kindergarten this year, but schools will continue to be reimbursed less for a kindergartener than for a first-grader.

Federal education officials aren't foolish. In handing out millions for early childhood education, they are looking for results, which won't come without addressing poverty and the underlying causes of low achievement.

Sadly, Indiana was once headed in the right direction. Former Gov. Joe Kernan established an early learning commission, but Daniels disbanded it. It's easier to accuse public schools of failing when you take away the tools to help students succeed.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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