Chesterton Tribune

Indiana lags in preschool and early education

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican lawmakers want teachers and schools evaluated on student performance and parents to have more options, but experts say preschools and other early childhood learning have more impact on success in the classroom.

The Indianapolis Star reported Thursday that Indiana is one of just eight states that spend no state dollars on preschool programs, and two-thirds of states require children to start school earlier than Indiana’s standard age of 7.

“Of all the things you could do, preschool probably has the largest impact on school success,” said Steve Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Daniels education aide Scott Jenkins says the GOP governor supports full-day kindergarten and studying ways to expand access to preschool, but his immediate goal is making existing schools the best they can be.

“The direction of this administration is to work in the system we have,” he said. “At a time of fiscal austerity, we try to protect resources going to the existing K-12 system. That’s where our focus has been.”

With state revenues down, leaders say Indiana cannot afford an early learning initiative now.

“I think we as a state must do it,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. “But it is going to be very challenging to have it become part of this legislative agenda on the basis of money.”

The cost of an education program for children not old enough to attend first grade varies. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated in 2007 it would cost up to $94 million the first year to offer full-day kindergarten in all districts. The Star said the costs for pre-kindergarten programs for ages 3-5 in states close to Indiana’s population range from $83 million a year in Tennessee, which serves 18,364 kids, to about $12 million in Arizona for 5,447 kids.

Experts in early childhood education say lawmakers could make relatively inexpensive changes that would at least set the state on the right path.

“Just saying there is no money, I don’t find that to be an acceptable answer,” said Ena Shelley, the dean of Butler University’s College of Education and an expert in early childhood education. “

About 34,000 Indiana kids are served by public preschools run by school districts or supported by federal programs. The state serves about 20 percent of preschool-age kids in public preschools, while states such as Oklahoma and West Virginia have expanded public pre-kindergarten programs to serve more than 70 percent of preschoolers.

Barnett, the Rutgers expert, said Mexico, Canada, China, Australia, the United Kingdom and continental Europe all have expanded preschool programs.

Brain research has increasingly pointed toward the preschool years as critical to setting the stage for learning throughout life, he said. That research, along with economic studies of the payoffs of early childhood education, is driving an expansion of preschool.

Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming are the other states that, like Indiana, offer no state aid for preschool.

Posted 1/14/2011