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'Comprehensive' school reform? Not without preschool

State Superintendent Tony Bennett has been on the road touting the freight train that ran through the Indiana Statehouse this year.

"We built a coalition of people who all wanted something and said we've got to be for school reform, comprehensive school reform. ... Now that we got the track built and the train starts, you'd better get on it or you're going to get run over," Bennett said during a conference last week at Harvard University.

Bennett explains the conditions placed on those coalition partners: "We told the charter school guys, if you start selling out on the voucher folks," he said, he'd take them to task.

In other words, the charter school supporters got what they wanted by keeping quiet about the millions in public school support being siphoned off to parochial schools through vouchers.

The discussion, like so many of the education "reform" conversations, seems to assume reform is measured by success in passing school choice legislation and limiting the voice of teachers in education policy. In fact, the results won't truly be known for years – until any effects of voucher legislation and charter school expansion are seen in terms of educational attainment.

What's interesting to watch as Bennett takes to the national stage is the lack of attention paid to Indiana's dirty little secret: We trail 40 other states in offering early childhood education. Indiana doesn't even offer universal full-day kindergarten. Preschool in Indiana is available only to the limited number of low-income families who qualify for federal Head Start programs, special education services or to families who can afford to pay for early childhood education programs themselves.

When it comes to reaching at-risk children, charter schools and voucher schools will have to make up the same early-learning deficit that traditional schools have to make, reducing the likelihood that Indiana's "comprehensive school reform," as Bennett describes it, will show quantitative school improvement. But as the superintendent explains, it was about "a coalition of people who all wanted something." The success of his reform agenda, in those terms, has been realized.

And what about educational improvement? It doesn't matter – Bennett and the other politicians responsible will be long retired before a full accounting of the past legislative session is made.

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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