It’s the definition of an issue ripe for bipartisan compromise.
Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, proposed the state should underwrite full-day kindergarten in public schools. His successor and fellow Democrat, Joe Kernan, supported the idea. And now Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has taken up the early-education cause.
“It’s almost universally acknowledged to be a good idea,” said Indiana Legislative Insight Publisher Ed Feigenbaum. “It’s simply a matter of, ‘Where do we come up with the funding?'”
According to the Indiana State Teachers’ Association, 60 percent of U.S. students now attend full-day kindergarten. But its price tag is daunting. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce pegs it at $210 million to $265 million per year. ISTA expects the cost may be even higher.
Still, education is a “front and center” priority for legislators next year, said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. Legislators worry that lack of the program ultimately helps fuel Indiana’s low achievement and high dropout rates.
“I really feel strongly we’re losing these kids early on,” Long said.
The question is how quickly to move Indiana from a half-day kindergarten system to one that lasts all day. Some, such as House Democrats, want to see the change made as soon as possible-preferably all at once.
“Kids do better when they get into school earlier,” said State Rep. David Orentlicher, D-Indianapolis. “They do better in later years, and that will help with our graduation rates.”
Others fear Indiana isn’t ready for an overnight overhaul. Republicans tend to favor a staggered full-day kindergarten phase-in, perhaps implementing the program 25 percent at a time for four years. They’re worried that some schools, particularly in the suburbs, don’t have the physical capacity to house kids for the program. So, even if the state underwrites the operational costs, full-day kindergarten would be an unfunded mandate for suburban taxpayers to build new schoolrooms.
“House Republicans favor block grants as opposed to blanket funding for kindergarten,” said State Rep. Brian Bosma, RIndianapolis. “If we were to mandate fullday kindergarten, Hamilton Southeastern, for example, would have to build two new elementary schools. They simply aren’t ready for that.”
The ISTA is concerned that the program should also consider the needs of many children who live in poverty in either urban or very rural areas. Minority and at-risk children most in need of aid shouldn’t get short shrift at the expense of suburban kids, said ISTA Deputy Director Dan Clark.
“Everybody’s trying to figure out how in the world you close these achievement gaps. And it’s becoming obvious the sooner you do it, the easier it is,” he said. “But they’ve got to simultaneously, quite frankly, solve the problems of poverty in the cities and rural areas and the problems of growth in the suburbs.”
Some schools believe so strongly in fullday kindergarten they’ve found ways to finance it without the state’s money. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, moved to full-day kindergarten this year for more than 2,000 students, said IPS Superintendent Eugene White. To pay for it, IPS used a combination of private donations and money diverted from elsewhere in its budget. They’d like such measures to be temporary.
“We just can’t afford to wait any longer. That’s why we’ve been soliciting funds to put it on,” White said. “We just have too many students from [bad] situations. We have to prepare them for school. They can’t afford to wait any longer.”
“For a high-poverty, high-need district like IPS, we need the [full-day kindergarten] initiative as soon as possible,” he added.
Take Jody Whicker, a kindergarten teacher at IPS School 60. She has 27 5-year-old kids in her classroom. Every year, Whicker said, she spends about $700 out of her own pocket to purchase additional teaching materials.
“And it’s not just cutesy decorations,” she said. “These are all academically focused materials I purchase because I know I’ll use them for my kids.”
But the biggest thing kindergarten teachers lack is time, Whicker said. The more she gets to spend with the children, the better the results.
“You’re asking something almost impossible of the half-day teachers to get a full-day’s curriculum accomplished in half a day,” she said. “We’re doing the most important job there is. We’re educating our future.”
Suburban teachers are also eager to see the Legislature underwrite full-day kindergarten. Teresa Meredith, who teaches halfday kindergarten at Shelbyville-based Hendricks Elementary, noted that it’s the intangibles that suffer when teachers’ time with students is short. To meet state standards, they must focus on math and reading, leaving little opportunity to help kindergartners with softer skills, like good table manners or how to work a zipper. Many unfortunate children aren’t getting such instruction at home.
“Should we ever be blessed with fullday, we think we could actually balance the standards and the social skills,” Meredith said. “We do our best, but it’s sometimes tough.”
There are many arguments in favor of full-day kindergarten, but the program’s passage will ultimately depend on Indiana’s bottom line. And former Lt. Gov. John Mutz, now chairman of Lumina Foundation for Education, said it’s difficult to predict how much financial support legislators will be willing to provide until the total state budget begins to take shape. Legislators’ true level of support could be clear only when they see its price tag in context with other spending priorities.
There are other needs, even just within the area of education. Mutz noted that more than 800,000 adult Hoosiers are operating without functional reading and math skills. Since kindergartners take years to mature, adult education programs have a greater short-run effect on Indiana’s economy.
Legislators appear ready to pass some form of full-day kindergarten, Mutz said. But they’ll keep perspective on their other priorities, too.
“Remember, we’re not swimming in money at this point,” he said. “The old saw or axiom is that part of a loaf is better than no loaf, and that’s probably what will happen.”