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Indiana lawmakers fail pre-K

Brandon Smith's Q&A interview with state Sen. Luke Kenley for StateImpact Indiana so perfectly sums up Indiana's backward views on preschool education that it should be required reading for every parent.

Kenley -- to his credit -- recognizes that House Bill 1004 isn't really about early learning. He notes in the interview that the legislation proposed by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, was really about expanding school vouchers:

"One of the things the bill itself says if they attend a pre-K program and get some education on this that they are then qualified for a voucher for a private school without ever going to a public school," Kenley said. "So that's an enormous expansion of the voucher program which is an enormous additional cost that we need to consider before we jump into these activities."

The Noblesville Republican also points out that Behning's bill gave oversight of the preschool voucher program to FSSA, "which is basically the state's welfare department."

He wisely notes that if the program is intended to promote school readiness, it should fall under the Indiana Department of Education.

But Kenley also reveals how removed he is from the needs and challenges of so many Hoosiers. Asked why he has reservations about preschool in the first place, the Harvard-educated lawyer offers this response:

"We think in most families that it's more important for the family to be engaged with the young child, do the reading to the child, participate in all those things, and participate when they go to school as well. We don't think that the state, for example, to go to an extreme, should take all children at a young age and raise them communally. That's the picture that some of our caucus members have in their minds."

If Kenley believes that Indiana's poorest families have the same time and resources as middle-income and wealthy families, he needs to get out of the Statehouse a bit more often. Twenty-two percent of Indiana children live in poverty. These are kids whose most immediate challenge isn't a bedtime story -- it's whether they will have a warm place to sleep tonight or a decent meal tomorrow. Children from poverty lack the early learning advantages needed to prepare them for school. They usually don't enjoy the benefits of family travel, museum visits, library story time, zoo trips and other experiences that nurture young minds.

Kenley's use of the word "communally" seems intentional, as if to assign some sort of socialist motive to anyone promoting early learning. Yet, he would likely find that children in his upper-income neighborhood "communally" attend the best preschool programs their parents can afford. In wealthy families, enrollment at the best preschool program is the first step to attendance at Harvard and other top-ranked universities.

Behning's bill is a thinly veiled K-12 voucher expansion program, but even a strong preschool bill seems hopeless against such backward thinking as the Senate Finance Committee chairman displays. Until Indiana business people start making the economic case for high-quality preschool, it looks like a lost cause for Hoosier children.

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