Indiana should join the vast majority of states in paying for pre-kindergarten programs, Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg said Thursday.
Gregg called for a state-funded preschool program as part of his plan for early education he rolled out this week. He says Indiana loses out in competition for families and businesses to other states who have invested in early childhood education.
"This is unacceptable," Gregg said Thursday, standing outside the Key Learning Community School in Indianapolis. "The evidence is overwhelming that one of the keys to success in school, in childhood education, is to get these kids moving."
The National Conference of State Legislatures counts Indiana as one of 11 states without a state-funded pre-kindergarten program. All states get federal aid, via the Head Start program, to send low-income children to preschool, but most supplement that spending.
Indiana stands out as an exception in the Midwest, said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which tracks pre-kindergarten programs state by state.
The states providing the best early education include West Virginia and Oklahoma, where the state provides schooling for 3- and 4-year-olds in part by supplementing the existing Head Start program, he said.
"They're not wealthy states, they're not liberal states. They're states where they decided they needed to prioritize investments in education to make their states competitive," Barnett said.
Gregg is running against Republican Mike Pence and Libertarian Rupert Boneham in November's election.
Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault did not comment directly on Gregg's proposal, but said Pence believes "strong, healthy families" are the best preschools. The Pence campaign is expected to release more details on its early education plans later in the race.
Boneham did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Thursday.
Gregg said Thursday he backs starting a program similar to one run by Wisconsin, which enrolls 55 percent of the state's 4-year-olds in preschools, but said he would study the idea before submitting a formal proposal as governor.
Early education spending in neighboring states over the last year ranged from $280 million in Illinois to $23.3 million in Ohio, according a September 2011 study from the Pew Center on the States.
The former Indiana House speaker also called for the creation of a childcare tax credit and permanent funding for full-day kindergarten. Lawmakers approved a funding boost for full-day kindergarten earlier this year after state officials discovered $320 million in misplaced corporate tax collections.
Any expansion of school will take money, but Gregg did not have a set price tag yet. Indiana is set to start the next year with $1.4 billion in the bank and expects to add $500 million to that amount over the year.