A bill poised for passage in the Indiana General Assembly would provide $80 million to fully fund all-day kindergarten programs, which many educators consider a step forward.
Preschool programs are another story.
Even as the Pew Center on the States reports other states have doubled their investment in Pre-K programs over the past decade, Indiana’s one of only 11 states that don’t provide families any money for preschool.
Educators say a “convergence” of research confirms preschool’s importance. But lawmakers say it’s not a question of importance — it’s a question of preschool’s cost.
—Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, Indiana House Ways & Means Committee chair
Stuck In The Middle
“It’s all about numbers and tests whenever they get into school,” says Emmy Sparks, who runs the Penny Lane West School in Bloomington. “If [students] don’t have the Pre-K background to do all of these kinds of things, they’re going to be falling behind before they even get there.”
Penny Lane could probably accomodate 150 students per year, but only 70 are enrolled. A year of preschool at Penny Lane can cost nearly $7,500. Families can apply for federal assistance through the Head Start program, which is limited to low-income families.
Sparks says that means families in “the middle of the road” are often excluded from preschool — the parents who can’t afford preschool, but don’t qualify for federally-subsidized Pre-K.
“They’re just stuck,” Sparks says. “They don’t have any options for [child care], so they end up going with grandma, or a neighbor, or a high school student during the summer.”
A Matter of Money
Michael Conn-Powers who directs the Early Childhood Center at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University says kids who go to preschool are better socialized, they have advanced reading and math skills and ultimately they achieve better test scores.
“Children who are able to finish high school and work and find jobs are less apt to get into trouble — fewer teen pregnancies. It all begins with a sound early education and early childhood program for children,” he says.
Conn-Powers adds all of the states around Indiana have been providing funding for preschool services for years.
Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee in the Indiana House, says the state hasn’t funded Pre-K because there isn’t enough money going around to pay for a program. Espich is co-sponsoring a bill funding full-day kindergarten, which he says the state must do first before considering giving money for preschool.
“We’ve always thought kids needed 12 years of school before they went on to college. Then, a few years back, we said they really need kindergarten before they start those 12 years, as a preface to that. If you carry to the extreme of what someone suggests, maybe we should have done Pre-K before we ever even got to the first 12 years of school,” Espich says.
Return on Investment?
Conn-Powers says he’s seen the data showing the state could see a 10 percent return on investment if it invests in high-quality Pre-K programs. He doesn’t know if the state will see a similar rate of return when it approves $80 million to fund full day kindergarten.
“That’s dollars that you know then we can’t provide towards pre school. I’d hate to get into an argument that says we should invest in pre-school before we go to full-day kindergarten,” Conn-Powers says.
Espich says he imagines there’s no limit to how far back people may want to educate kids. But he says in order to fund Pre-K, the state would have to give up another grade level. He says eliminating the third grade, for example, is not something he’s willing to do.
Legislators are considering forming an exploratory committee to evaluate whether state funding for Pre-K is necessary.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story identified research on state-by-state increases in preschool funding as coming from “the Pew Research Center.” The research actually came from the Pew Center on the States. Both are arms of The Pew Charitable Trusts, but are largely distinct groups. (March 8, 10:00 a.m.)