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Learning Curve

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The preschool deniers

The daily digest of early childhood articles had an unusual headline among stories generally supportive of preschool: "Reading aloud to kids at home cheaper than preschool"

Where would such a backward-thinking view come from?

Why, Indiana, of course.

A headline writer at the Daily Journal in Franklin, Ind., put a rather blunt point to Andrea Neal's column (in the Indianapolis Star, it was "Reading starts at home for best early childhood education").

But the Daily Journal was merely emphasizing Neal's lead, which suggested that lawmakers should consider a program initiated in Richmond, Ind., before they "throw money at the thorny issue of early childhood education."

Only in the world of Andrea Neal, the conservative Indiana Policy Review and the far right is early childhood education a "thorny" issue. Countless studies have documented its effectiveness, economists cite the value of investment in it and law enforcement officials support it as an effective crime prevention investment.

The Wayne County program Neal highlights, called K-Ready, sounds remarkably similar to Allen County's Everybody Reads campaign. A $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2001 fueled the initiative, which highlighted the message for parents to read to their children 20 minutes each day. Billboards, printed materials, televised public service announcements and more drove home the message, which was intended to foster school readiness and academic success.

The catchy tune associated with the reading initiative became a familiar one while the public awareness campaign was under way, and it no doubt encouraged some parents to carve out time for reading to their children, with encouraging results seen in Fort Wayne Community Schools. But a decade later, the dollars for reinforcing the message have long run out.

More important, the children who would benefit most are in households where 20 minutes of reading a day is surely a challenge, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession. New data from IPFW's Community Research Institute show Allen County wages significantly trailing state wages. Indiana wages, of course, have fallen further behind average U.S. wages over the past decade. In other words, Hoosier families must work more to get by. How likely is it that a single mom juggling housework, laundry, shopping, meal preparation, a job – or two – has the time and energy each evening to read to her child for 20 minutes?

That same single mom might also have limited options when it comes to quality child care. Indiana has some of the weakest child-care regulations in the nation, thanks to some of the same policymakers who oppose investment in preschool. Too many children who would benefit from developmentally appropriate instruction in a child-care setting are instead left with relatives or caregivers who do nothing more than park their charges in front of a TV screen.

Yes, it would be wonderful if every family had the time and resources to spend 20 minutes each day reading rich and engaging books. They don't, so the well-documented value of investment in early childhood education is one Indiana needs to make. But as long as Neal and the Indiana Policy Review reinforce the backward views of Indiana lawmakers, we'll never get there.

The newfound interest Brian Bosma and the Indiana House Republican caucus is showing in early childhood education looks like nothing more than another route for taxpayer dollars to flow to churches and faith-based groups. If helping Indiana children succeed at school was truly their aim, where have they been as nearly every other state passed us by in supporting early learning?

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