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Learning Curve

  • An F for transparency
    “Look at this shiny thing over here!” – Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, Oct. 14, 2014.
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Indiana: Still in the preschool cellar

The annual survey of state-funded preschool programs laments the decline in state support during the past year. Even the states trimming pre-K investment, however, outperform Indiana, one of just 10 states that have yet to invest in early learning.

The other nine should be noted -- Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Notice that most are largely rural states where travel distances can make it difficult to establish high-quality preschool programs for young children.

The report, done annually by the Rutgers University-based National Institute for Early Education Research, gives Indiana credit for some progress. It notes the Early Education Matching Grant Program, which earlier this year awarded about $1.5 million to 30 different child-care programs around the state, from a program approved in 2013. It also notes the General Assembly this year approved a pilot program for five counties.

Both initiatives, however, have been assigned to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

That’s contrary to the direction most states are taking in early learning, according to NIEER director W. Steven Barnett.

“It’s actually very rare for human services to oversee state preschool programs,” he said in an interview. “The vast majority are under education.

“The culture of a department of education – the ease of linkages to K-3 and all of the education reforms, whether they are teacher evaluation or assessment of accountability – all of that happens if you are connected to education.”

Florida recently moved its preschool oversight from human services back to education, he said, because it wasn’t sufficiently focused on the state’s school readiness standards.

Certainly, Indiana’s FSSA officials, including the Bureau of Child Care employees who will oversee the pilot program, care about children. But their work is very different from the instruction-centered work of educators, Barnett said. They focus on monitoring and compliance; health and safety.

Indiana’s child care officials have a particularly full load right now, given that lawmakers finally approved tighter child-care regulations – rules that should begin to address the state’s appalling record in child-care safety.

Children weren’t a consideration when the governor proposed and Indiana lawmakers approved the new preschool initiative, of course. Politics were the consideration – specifically the politics of the Indiana Department of Education. The GOP-controlled Statehouse would not give oversight for a long-awaited preschool program to Democrat Glenda Ritz, superintendent of public instruction. She will have some limited input through the Early Learning Commission, but her agency is clearly outnumbered by members whose expertise is not early learning and school readiness.

GOP lawmakers and the anti-union administration undoubtedly wanted to keep control of Indiana’s early learning program from education hands because they don’t want any possibility of increasing the clout of the ISTA or AFT.

But separating early learning from professional educators increases the likelihood that the programs ultimately won’t require teachers with four-year degrees. That’s one of the 10 standards the NIEER survey looks for in rating state programs.

“The rationale is that to be highly effective requires intentional interactions between teachers and students,” Barnett explained, noting that early learning professionals understand that interactions must be one-on-one with very young children.

“The teacher has to understand child development,” he said, “She’s not just teaching letters and numbers. If that’s all we’re doing, there are only 26 letters -- it’s not that hard. But if we want to teach them a rich vocabulary; to get along with each other; to take personal responsibility … that takes a teacher who really knows how children learn.”

Barnett points to Alabama as an example of a GOP-led state where a quality preschool program has been deliberately and successfully established.

Who set the preschool standards there? The state department of education.

It’s also worth noting that the Alabama business community is a strong supporter of the state’s preschool program. Indiana’s business community spends much time criticizing the state of education here while promoting school choice and programs that strip funds from the public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of Indiana children.

If Indiana business leaders would step up and demand that professional educators lead early learning efforts, Indiana might finally climb out of the preschool cellar.

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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