Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Forge ahead with preschool

January 11, 2014

Gov. Mike Pence said last month that he wants to help young children from low-income homes start kindergarten “ready for a life of learning.” We applaud that goal, and ask the governor and General Assembly to craft voucher legislation that encourages the highest-quality preschools.

Pence hasn’t identified funding sources for his plan to give disadvantaged families access to public and private preschools, but he did say it would include “specified accountability measures” for the schools. Those measures will make all the difference.

Quality, intensive preschools for our poorest children have been shown to provide a decades-long advantage. Studies of the two most-heralded programs—The Perry Project and The Carolina Abecedarian Project—tracked participants through ages 40 and 21, respectively, and preschoolers in those programs were more likely to graduate from high school and hold a job than their peers in the studies’ control groups. They also committed fewer crimes and had higher incomes.

But both programs were small and took place decades ago. Critics of publicly funded preschool have called for broader, newer findings. Recent data has, indeed, been mixed. For example, a 2010 study of the nation’s most well-known free preschool program, Head Start, showed participants’ cognitive and social advantages faded within a year or two.

A recent study of a large-scale Chicago program was more encouraging. It tracked, through age 26, almost 1,000 children from the late 1980s. Preschoolers in The Chicago Child-Parent Centers grew up to have higher incomes and education levels, and were less likely to abuse drugs or be involved in crime, than children in the control group.

Why such disparity in results? The Perry, Abecedarian and Chicago programs used certified teachers, had low teacher/student ratios, and provided extensive family support and outreach.

Those details matter most in areas beyond academics. A 2013 Vanderbilt University follow-up study on The Perry Project, which took place in the mid 1960s, discovered the socialization advantage was by far the longest-lasting.

“Learning how to be well behaved as a young child, it turns out, is one of the strongest predictors of adult success,” the study’s authors found.

Duh. Many an Indianapolis Public Schools kindergarten teacher also can share tales of students entering school who have never used a crayon, never had a story read to them, haven’t learned how to follow simple directions. These children are playing catch-up from day one.

But a hands-on, quality preschool can provide disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds the early-life skills they need to navigate the society they’re about to enter. Researchers have found long-term returns on such programs range from $8 to $16 per tax dollar, from the resulting lower crime rates and social-service needs and higher incomes.

We urge the governor and legislators to design a program that will pay such cost-efficient dividends far into Indiana’s future.•

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