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House Republicans play preschool catch-up

Early childhood education is a 2013 budget priority, according to Indiana House Republicans. Better late than never, but this pledge looks more like election-year posturing than a newfound commitment to early learning.

Consider that House Speaker Brian Bosma had all the political muscle he needed to pass state-funded preschool two years ago, but instead chose to focus on voucher entitlements, charter-school expansion, weakening teacher collective bargaining rights and merit pay.

One problem with supporting early childhood education programs, of course, is that they work. It would be difficult to attack public school teachers as ineffective and resistant to change if they truly had a tool that would help students.

The biggest problem Bosma will face in promoting preschool is the stubborn resistance of some Hoosiers – most of them Republican faithful – to the idea that it should even exist. The state is light years behind in recognizing long-standing research in brain development and the effectiveness of early learning. Even worse is the widely held view among some Hoosiers that preschool is state-supported babysitting.

The party's presidential candidate certainly doesn't help the cause: At the same time Mitt Romney is wrongly accusing President Obama of eliminating work requirements from welfare regulations, he's telling NBC's Brian Williams that it is "extraordinarily important" for one parent to stay home with a young child. In Romney's view, of course, it's not so important for the children whose parents receive public assistance or are dependent on multiple paychecks.

Bosma apparently is looking at a plan to deliver preschool to low-income families through vouchers. Here's hoping the standards for delivering services and the oversight provided will be tougher than that exercised by Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration with child care vouchers. Where tax dollars are involved, there inevitably will be unscrupulous operators scrambling to take advantage of low-income families, particularly given the state's lax regulatory environment.

If Bosma is serious about promoting quality early learning programs for at-risk children, there's plenty of research and experience available from other states as a guide. If the caucus hammers out its own plan, don't expect much.

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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