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Still in the early learning cellar

An Indianapolis TV station reported this week on questions raised over Indiana's failure to apply for a share of $500 million in federal Early Learning Challenge grants.

But the administration's failure isn't in not applying for the grant, it's for not supporting early childhood education in the first place.

"It would have been a waste of time to spend energy and important state resources on an application that would not have been successful," DOE spokesman Alex Damron told WRTV reporter Kara Kenney. "We've chosen to pursue the programs that will have a tangible effect on learning in this state."

He was referring to increased funding for full-day kindergarten. It will, undoubtedly have a tangible effect on learning, but it still falls short of full funding. Fort Wayne Community Schools will spend about $4.5 million next year to make up the difference between what the state provides and what would be available if kindergarteners were funded at the same rate as first-graders. Wealthier districts charge parents for the difference.

Damron's "waste of time" reference is correct. The U.S. Department of Education will be looking for a real commitment to early learning when it doles out the grant money, and there's nothing of the sort to be found in the current administration. Other states have been offering full-day kindergarten for years – families who relocate to Indiana often are shocked to learn it's not available or costs extra.

Indiana is one of just 10 states allocating no money toward preschool. Even Mississippi has a new program to bolster school readiness in child care centers. Most of the others without a state preschool program are western states where sparsely populated areas make it difficult to provide services for young children.

Where preschool is offered in Indiana, it's paid for with federal or private dollars.

The state's poor performance isn't unintentional – Gov. Mitch Daniels dismantled the state's Early Learning Commission when he took office and work on a seamless preschool through college learning system suddenly became a K-16 plan. The so-called "reform" measures the current administration crows about all have to do with charters, school vouchers and teacher contracts.

School attendance in Indiana isn't even mandatory until age 7 – "they can almost drive themselves," quips Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White.

The administration rejects early learning opportunities in spite of evidence from educators, economists and even law enforcement officials that investing in preschool programs targeted at children from low-income families will bolster achievement, save tax dollars and keep young people out of trouble over the long term. It rejects early learning in spite of extensive brain research showing how important it is to cognitive development.

No, the question isn't why Indiana's top education officials didn't apply for the Early Learning Challenge –– it's why they are ignoring research-based evidence that early childhood education helps students succeed. What's the real aim in putting our students, schools and teachers at a disadvantage compared to other U.S. schools?

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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