Is Indiana ready for state-sponsored pre-kindergarten programs?
That’s precisely the question Indiana University education experts asked in a policy brief more than six years ago. The answer, of course, was no – Indiana today remains one of just 11 states that spends no money on preschool. Aside from Mississippi and New Hampshire, most are sparsely populated western states.
IU’s Center for Evaluation & Education Policy laid out a strong case for investment in early learning in its 2006 study. It recommended the state re-establish the Early Learning and School Readiness Commission eliminated by Gov. Mitch Daniels. It also advised setting goals for a publicly funded program, examining alternatives to build on existing early learning efforts, identifying a funding source and choosing a lead agency to implement it.
But without a supportive governor, effective champions in the General Assembly or even Statehouse consensus on the value of preschool, education policy veered from the evidence-based case for early learning to unproven approaches: Increased emphasis on standardized testing, private-school vouchers; charter school expansion; punitive school letter grades.
The calculus changed on Election Day, however, and the state’s youngest residents finally could be in line to enjoy sound education benefits long available elsewhere. Indiana’s preschool opportunity finally is in reach.
The right time
While Daniels saw the early learning commission as a wasted effort, his successor seems to see real value in early learning. Gov.-elect Mike Pence repeatedly emphasized his policy goal to support quality, community pre-K initiatives and examine opportunities to increase access to pre-K for underprivileged children.
The Republican congressman frequently pointed to the Busy Bees Academy in Columbus, an initiative of the city’s Community Education Coalition of school, business and community leaders. It’s a small program – just 90 children last year – but its broad support from the city’s leaders is encouraging and the program sets high standards for early learning.
Another encouraging sign was the election of Glenda Ritz, a media specialist at Crooked Creek Elementary School in suburban Indianapolis, as state superintendent of public instruction. While current schools chief Tony Bennett said he supported early education, his record over four years was virtually devoid of any progress there.
Ritz said she reviewed organization of the Indiana Department of Education and found that it does not include an early learning component – which she plans to add. She said she wants to learn about the preschool programs already in place.
The superintendent-elect said she will emphasize a community approach to develop a culture of reading.
We’re going to be doing a lot of initiatives, she said. I hope to work with community organizations to make sure kids coming from poverty have books, even if they don’t go to preschool; to make sure all kids, through the public library systems, have library cards. I’m a firm believer that reading equalizes the playing field across income levels.
If the newly elected governor and state superintendent share goals in promoting early learning, they should find partners in the General Assembly’s Republican leadership. House Speaker Brian Bosma identified state-funded preschool as a priority in a pre-election news conference, noting that the early childhood learning opportunities that we all believe are so important for the future are something Indiana should pursue.
Finally, the education community should be ready advocates. Six years ago, most teachers could tune out much of what was going on beyond their own classroom, but now their performance evaluations are tied to student test scores. They should be eager to support investments that will ensure students assigned to their classrooms are on track and ready to learn.
The right approach
Indiana’s dismal record in offering early learning should be foremost in lawmakers’ minds when identifying budget-year priorities. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR), based at Rutgers University, has tracked state investment in preschool for more than a decade. Its data show that Indiana has about 11,000 students enrolled in special education preschool programs and another 13,000 in federally funded Head Start programs. There is no state-funded preschool program.
Massachusetts, with roughly the same population, has more than 14,000 children enrolled in a state program; another 22,000 in Head Start or special education preschool. All of Indiana’s neighboring states have state-funded programs – every school district in Kentucky offers preschool.
But it’s not just other states investing in early learning.
The rest of the world is moving ahead with public support for pre-K, said W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIERR, in an email. Some states are keeping pace, while others are falling further behind. Even less wealthy countries like South Korea are moving ahead with free preschool for all despite already having higher-performing students than the United States. They don’t plan on staying less wealthy.
Rigorous cost-benefit analyses support the investment. The Perry Preschool study is just one – it originally tracked children from preschool through age 19 but has been updated to determine effects through age 40. Participants had lower special education rates and higher long-term achievement than a control group. Participants’ graduation rate was 20 percentage points higher; both juvenile and adult arrest rates were lower. Some studies have indicated a return as high as $17 for each dollar invested in early learning.
But the staunchest supporters of early education are those who have been providing it. Superintendent Wendy Robinson of Fort Wayne Community Schools, a member of the state’s Education Roundtable, watched with frustration as the governor and state schools chief focused the panel on college and career readiness.
Don’t talk about Indiana’s position in economic development if you aren’t going to come to grips with the fact that preparation for an educated workforce starts at birth, she said. You’ll spend less money on job retraining and remediation if you educate children from the start.
FWCS has about 480 spots for preschoolers in federally funded Title I programs, with long waiting lists. About 270 children are in pre-K programs at Bunche Montessori and Whitney Young early childhood centers. Robinson said all children – not just those from disadvantaged families – benefit from preschool.
If you look at what our moral purpose is – in educating all kids to high standards – it just makes sense, she said. I make it a point to never blame kids for their status at birth.
The right program
What Indiana’s preschool program might look like is as important as finally investing in one.
If you don’t have some standards and expectations for early learning, it’s just babysitting, Robinson said.
Ritz is on the right track when she insists her first priority will be to ensure full funding for full-day kindergarten. The grant program lawmakers approved two years ago still falls short. FWCS receives about $1.5 million less than it would if kindergarten students were treated as any other full-day student. Marshaling support for preschool without first guaranteeing that kindergarten costs are covered would be foolish.
Terry Spradlin, director for education policy at IU’s CEEP, said the center is updating its 2006 preschool brief to inform Indiana policymakers. A former legislative liaison for the Indiana Department of Education, he said he expects lawmakers won’t go for a universal program – pre-K for all – but instead focus on programs for at-risk children. Spradlin estimates a rough cost of $71 million a year to serve those children not already enrolled in Head Start or a special education program.
It’s not a babysitting option, he said. This is a great opportunity to catch kids up who otherwise would start school months behind.
But high-quality programs aren’t a foregone conclusion. Bosma insists he wants to use an approach like the controversial school voucher program, allowing parents to take tax dollars to a provider of their choice. The governor-elect also has added conditions.
If Indiana were to finally establish a state-funded preschool program, My one overriding principle is that I don’t want to replace what is happening in communities around the state of Indiana – faith-based organizations, private philanthropy organizations, simply private efforts supported by local businesses to provide pre-K, Pence told StateImpact Indiana.
While there are some excellent private and faith-based programs in Indiana, there also are some abysmally poor ones. Indiana’s lax regulations on child care providers should not be replicated in a preschool program. The state, in fact, has an excellent model in the voluntary Paths to Quality program, a child-care quality rating system. Created in Fort Wayne by the Early Childhood Alliance and now used statewide, it sets four levels – the highest of which includes rigorous standards that include a planned curriculum and national certification.
Lawmakers allowed little study and even less debate before approving a host of education bills over the last two years. None is backed by the long-standing evidence that supports investment in early childhood education. Ritz’s election is a clear sign that Indiana voters opposed the agenda, even if they believed Bennett was responsible.
If legislators want to prove they truly support education – and the state’s long-term economic success – they will make high-quality early learning programs a budget priority next year.