Thirteen years ago this week, Gov. Joe Kernan announced he would establish the Early Learning and School Readiness Commission to support the goal of a preschool through college learning continuum.
Kernan was defeated by Mitch Daniels in November and the commission was soon disbanded. Children who were 4-year-olds when Kernan pushed for preschool will graduate from high school next year, but Indiana has taken only baby steps toward a serious investment in early childhood learning. And in spite of support from newly elected Gov. Eric Holcomb, prospects look dim in the current session of the General Assembly.
The Senate Education and Career Development Committee approved House Bill 1004 last week, wisely stripping a $10.5 million provision that would have made preschoolers enrolled in the state’s On My Way Pre-K program eligible for K-12 vouchers. But the committee, whose chair is Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, amended the House bill to look like its own Senate Bill 276, which adds only $3 million a year to the five-county pilot program that began in mid-2015.
The House version would have added $10 million a year to the pilot program, which last year cost $8.3 million and served 1,585 four-year-olds. Holcomb supports spending an additional $20 million over the biennium.
Other states spend much more than Indiana. South Carolina invested $47 million in early learning in 2014-15; Nebraska spent $33 million. Michigan, serving more than 37,000 children, spent $239 million. Tennessee, which first invested in preschool in 1996, spent $85 million in 2015.
Other states support early learning because they know it works. A study of 10 state programs by the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University-Bloomington found benefits for children, their families and taxpayers.
“When students were enrolled in pre-K education programs, less taxpayer money was spent on special education, criminal justice, unemployment benefits and public benefits,” according to the February report. “Since participants in the pre-K programs had higher incomes than those who were not in pre-K programs, these participants contributed more taxes on their earnings.”
A cost-benefit analysis found a $12.90 return on each dollar invested.
Quality preschool is the key, of course, and the best investment targets children from low-income families. Allen County had good news this week with the announcement that Fort Wayne Community Schools has been accepted as an On My Way Pre-K provider. The district’s preschool programs are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the gold standard for early learning programs. But available funds allow for only 16 spaces in FWCS’ top-rated programs.
Which brings us back to those 4-year-olds from 2004. Where would the state be today if support for early learning hadn’t been interrupted? How much would the state have saved?
Precious time and money is being wasted as Indiana lawmakers resist joining the majority of states with robust preschool programs. Legislators have a chance before the end of the session to ensure that more children get a strong start on learning.