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Indiana lags other states in pre-kindergarten education

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Gov. Mitch Daniels recently received praise for signing into law full day kindergarten for Hoosier children. The state, however, is also receiving national criticism for being one of the few remaining states not committed to state-funded pre-kindergarten, or pre-K, education.

“The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook,” a national report capping 10 years of research, shows Indiana is one of 11 states where 3- and 4-year olds had no access to state-funded preschool in 2010-2011.

During the past decade, national enrollment in these programs has nearly doubled. Many states have also maintained high-quality programs despite weak economic times.

“The money is in the budget, but the willingness to spend it is the issue,” said former Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, who is retiring from the Indiana General Assembly.

During Crawford’s extensive tenure on the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles the state’s budget, he said the issue of state-funded preschool has come up several times, most recently this last session spearheaded by Rep. John Day, D-Indianapolis.

Crawford said another reason why state-funded pre-K did not pass in the Legislature this year is because Indiana is currently having a hard time funding all-day kindergarten.

He estimates the state requiring $25 to $28 million a year to properly fund pre-K education. At the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30, however, the state is expected to have a surplus of approximately $1.4 to $1.8 billion.

In order to have pre-K education, the members of the General Assembly would have to pass a bill followed by a signature by the governor, who also has the option to veto the bill.

Steve Barnett, director of the nonpartisan National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University applauds Indiana’s efforts with full-day kindergarten, but doesn’t believe it’s good enough.

“In many urban areas, kids are starting 18 months behind. In a good kindergarten or first grade, they can catch up some of that, but that’s a very heavy lift,” said Barnett. “It’s not just a problem for kids in poverty. There are a substantial number of middle income kids who start just as far behind as children in poverty.”

Low-income children are further disadvantaged, Barnett says, because their parents are more likely to be poorly educated, which may lead to less language, reading and math in the home. These kids are also less likely to hear positive speech in their homes. Other issues such as poor nutrition and underexposure to educational supplements can further exacerbate the problem.

Prior to entering kindergarten, Bennett said children should be able to have a rich knowledge of language.

“People tend to put a lot of emphasis on letters and numbers, which is important, but if they don’t know the words or what they mean, it’s like trying to read Russian,” said Barnett. “There’s a huge world outside your community that they need to know. To start school without that basic knowledge is a problem.”

Before entering kindergarden, children should also be able to self-regulate, pay attention, have the ability to think before they act, and share. Experts say preschool aids these skills.

Most of Indiana’s list-mates that don’t have a pre-k program are large, sparsely populated Western states such as Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Indiana is the only state in the Midwest without a pre-school program.

In order to join other states with pre-k programs, Barnett suggests that Indiana start with small, pilot programs  to show results to the public and Legislature. Indiana can also follow the model of states like Alaska and Alabama which were once in Indiana’s position. Oklahoma is touted to have the best preschool program.

“What’s more expensive than having a pre-school program is not having one. You’re paying the price in terms of prison costs, health care, unemployment or kids repeating grades. All of this is unnecessary,” said Bennett.

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