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Senate Dems push universal state-funded preschool program

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Minority Democrats in the Indiana Senate will push to fund universal preschool programs statewide and require that all students enter school by age 5, essentially mandating kindergarten.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said the benefits of preschool are too important to ignore for Indiana to remain one of 10 states that doesn’t put state funding into the programs.

“High quality pre-K programs produce students who are more likely to graduate,” Lanane said. “They earn higher incomes and they own a home and are less likely to require remediation or commit crimes. In other words, they’re better prepared to succeed.”

But universal preschool will be a hard sell. Republicans – who control the Indiana House and Senate – considered a pilot preschool program for low-income children earlier this year. But ultimately, they stripped it down into a small matching program for poor families.

Republicans have also been reticent in the past to require students to attend kindergarten in Indiana. Currently, state law requires kids to attend school once they turn 7 years old, although most start earlier.

Still, Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he welcomed Lanane’s ideas.

“The budget the legislature passed earlier this year set aside $4 million for an early-education pilot program,” Kruse said. “Although it’s too early to have the results, it will be interesting to see what impact those programs have on our children.”

The Democrats’ plan would require that all schools provide state-funded preschool but wouldn’t require that students attend, Lanane said. Private preschools that currently serve thousands of Indiana students might also qualify for funding, Lanane said.

He said the details could be worked out during the General Assembly’s session in 2014, which starts in January. But he acknowledged that because lawmakers won’t write another budget until 2015, a preschool system probably couldn’t be in place earlier.

Lanane estimated it would cost at least $190 million annually to pay for the program – money he said should come from the state’s cash surplus, which now tops about $2 billion.

But Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said providing preschool for all 4-year-olds would likely cost as much as $400 million annually.

“It’s a lot of money,” Kenley said. “And it’s one of the reasons why I have been hesitant about it. Indiana is already spending – with state and federal money combined – about $375 million for childhood programs of different types.”

That number includes a variety of programs such as childcare subsidies and Head Start, federally-funded pre-kindergarten for poor families. Kenley said advocates of preschool should see how that money might be able to be redirected to a larger scale preschool program.

Forty states provide some state funding for full-day kindergarten but few provide universal services. Lanane noted that some studies have shown that every public dollar invested in preschool saves $13 in future costs for remediation, social services and incarceration.

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