INDIANAPOLIS – Pamela Beckford cringes every time she sees Wells County pop up in red on a map of counties lacking quality prekindergarten options. As in none.
But that doesn't mean the Wells County United Way's early-learning advocate is on board with a possible new in-home early learning option just approved and funded by lawmakers.
The virtual program was added by Senate Republicans to a bill expanding Indiana's pilot classroom-based pre-K program, and $2 million was set aside if the Family and Social Services Administration decides to implement it.
“I think it's wrong. I don't think the online option is good for Wells County,” Beckford said. “I am hoping the money could be put back into the traditional pre-K model.
“If parents want to be engaged with their children then they are already engaged. It does nothing for the social development, which is a pretty big problem.”
Statewide less than 40 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool. And some counties like Wells can't participate in the state program because there are no eligible providers.
The tablet-based virtual program is targeted at the 10 counties in the state with no Level 3 or 4 Paths to Quality providers – Crawford, Jasper, Newton, Pulaski, Putnam, Rush, Starke, Sullivan, Warren and Wells. Paths to Quality is an early learning accreditation system.
Beckford said Wells County should have two Level 3 providers by fall.
“It's just another hook in the water for 4-year-olds in low-income households to provide them with another option to give them a jumpstart,” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle.
He took some convincing – as did House Republicans and Gov. Eric Holcomb – but in the end he thinks the virtual program is worth exploring as a complement – not a replacement – for the traditional program.
Holdman said it is geared to rural areas of Indiana without early-learning options.
It is generally based on an Upstart program that has been used in Utah for 10 years. It is run by nonprofit Waterford though there are other providers that could seek to serve Indiana.
It provides parents access to software that helps prepare children for kindergarten in “just 15 minutes a day.”
House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, has been aware of the program for years from his work on a national education group. But he prefers encouraging kids to put down electronic devices and to think creatively.
“A lot of the research is more focused on executive function as opposed to academics, especially the younger the child,” Behning said.
It isn't so much the colors and numbers that children need to be ready for kindergarten, he said. It's how to sit still, pay attention, work as a team, socialize with others, share toys and more.
“My issue with Upstart is 'how the heck do you teach executive function on an iPad?' ” Behning asked.
In 2014 lawmakers established Indiana's first state-paid pilot for prekindergarten. It was limited to five counties – Lake, Allen, Vanderburgh, Jackson and Marion – and lawmakers put $10 million into the On My Way Pre-K program. At that time, the legislature also set up a longitudinal study to follow the low-income children in pre-K compared with their peers without early childhood education through third grade.
So far the traditional classroom-based program has served about 1,500 kids a year statewide. Advocates pushed for at least a doubling of funding to $20 million a year. The budget provided that money and allowed it to be expanded to additional counties. Those were announced last week, including Kosciusko and DeKalb counties.
But the virtual program was added to satiate Republicans leery about a large expansion of the traditional approach before a study is complete.
The Upstart software uses adaptive lessons, digital books, songs, and activities to deliver early literacy content. Families without a computer are given a tablet, and a smaller number are even provided satellite internet access to use the software.
Holdman said the company monitors what the tablet is used for and takes them away after three warnings for inappropriate use.
Family and Social Services Administration hasn't started vetting the online approach yet.
Spokeswoman Marni Lemons said the agency's primary focus was to announce the new counties added to the traditional pre-K program.
“It's premature to discuss the process or timeline on the in-home program,” she said.
The law said FSSA “shall” review in-home early education services available. But it's up to the agency whether to move forward with a program that would reimburse costs to parents to participate.
In Utah that cost is about $725 each school year per student, but the cost that Indiana lawmakers suggested was about $1,400 per student – depending on the need for tablets and internet. About 700 children could be in the program each year.
Holdman said it would take at least six to eight months to implement, noting a request for proposals would have to be offered.
“It's really going to be on the back of the provider who comes in the state to build a network and get after the kids because there isn't really a framework in those counties,” he said.
Sarah Young, coordinator for digital teaching and learning at the Utah State Office of Education, said the program's enrollment has grown from about 500 the first year to more than 14,000.
“Upstart – on every cohort – performs at a statistically better rate,” she said. “Their state assessment scores are higher reaching second, third and fourth grade than those in the control group.”
A 2016 longitudinal report on the program found children made gains over peers who didn't use the kindergarten-readiness software.
But critics note the population has been mostly white and from two-parent households. Also, most of the children in the evaluation came from families with much higher income brackets than Indiana's program covers.
Behning said Utah's demographics are much more homogeneous and don't align with Hoosier children in poverty.
But he doesn't think the idea should be discarded – just approached cautiously. Even at $1,400 a child that is much cheaper than the $6,800 per child in the full-day pre-K program.
Ted Maple, president of advocacy group Early Learning Indiana, said “we continue to hope that given limited resources we would make investments as a state in what we know works. We know that high-quality classroom-based pre-K works.”