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Early-learning losers
Only 10 states, most of them in the plains and western U.S., invest no state dollars in preschool:
New Hampshire
North Dakota
South Dakota

Early-childhood education offers fighting state factions chance to cooperate

In the struggle pitting Gov. Mike Pence and Republican Statehouse leaders against Democratic state schools chief Glenda Ritz, it would seem the two sides can’t agree on anything. In fact, they all are pushing for the one school policy initiative the state most needs: early learning.

So here’s an opportunity to break the tension by working toward a common goal. In finally advancing an effective preschool framework, the elected officials can prove they truly are interested in helping students. Advancing early childhood education, after all, is the one school reform measure Indiana officials haven’t tried.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Ritz has been consistent in calling for investment in preschool. Approval of IREAD-3, the reading test Indiana third-graders now must pass to be promoted, is what prompted the former media specialist and National Board Certified Teacher to challenge former Superintendent Tony Bennett. Ritz rightly argues the state should help children earlier, so they won’t be at risk of falling behind by grade three.

The governor also has promoted early childhood education, repeatedly citing a preschool program in his hometown of Columbus as a model. He made appointments to an early childhood learning advisory committee earlier this fall and has indicated that his legislative agenda for 2014 includes early learning.

Legislators in recent years yielded to an administration more interested in approving school vouchers and creating charter schools than in investing in preschool, but they didn’t hesitate to approve the modest steps made in finally moving to full-day kindergarten.

Still, Indiana remains stubbornly at the bottom of the class when it comes to investing in young children, holding the starting line for learning back as other states move far ahead. Of the 10 states with no preschool program, Indiana is the only Midwest holdout.

State officials blamed budget constraints when the Early Learning and School Readiness Commission created by former Gov. Joe Kernan was dissolved in 2005. That excuse no longer works as they boast of a surplus and prepare to push more tax cuts. Nor can they continue to champion the unproven school reform measures while ignoring the success other states are seeing from research-backed preschool programs. Some examples:

•A 1998 law was quietly pushed past Oklahoma legislators who failed to read the legislation, making preschool available to nearly three-quarters of the state’s 4-year-olds. The results are impressive. A Georgetown University study found that children who attended preschool in Tulsa classrooms were nine months ahead of their peers in pre-literacy and seven months ahead in pre-writing, with the biggest gains going to children from the poorest families.

•In New Jersey, a longitudinal study of the Abbott Preschool Program, offered under court order in the state’s poorest school districts, found children made significant gains in literacy, language, math and science through fourth and fifth grade. The study found persistent gains in all subject areas on standardized tests. Preschool participation also was linked to lower retention rates and to fewer children needing special education services.

•An October research brief by the Foundation for Child Development analyzed recent research on preschool to confirm that “evidence across decades” shows a substantial effect on learning and development. It also addressed the argument that effects decrease in later years: “The most recent research is showing … that even when the difference in test scores declines to zero, children who have attended preschool go on to show positive effects on important adolescent and young adult outcomes, such as high school graduation, reduced teen pregnancy, years of education completed, earnings, and reduced crime.”

With convincing results elsewhere and rare common ground here, Indiana officials should have no excuse not to put down the boxing gloves and finally create high-quality early-learning opportunities for Hoosier children. They must resist using the initiative to direct more voucher payments to faith-based programs with little regulation or accountability. Strong and successful models are easy to find and should guide Indiana as it makes up for precious lost time.

Source: National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University