Business, philanthropic leaders urge preschool expansion

Indiana lawmakers should act quickly to expand a preschool pilot program – one that’s not even yet underway – when they meet for their budget-writing session next year, business and not-for-profit leaders said Monday.

“We simply can’t afford to let this session be one of inaction,” said Connie Bond Stuart, a regional president at PNC Bank, which has pledged $500,000 to a pre-kindergarten program in central Indiana.

Stuart told the Education Study Committee that “some will advise you to wait” until experts can study the impact of the five-county pilot, which is expected to begin early next year. But she said the business and philanthropic communities are enthusiastic about moving forward now.

“I urge you to use the upcoming budget session to continue the momentum,” Stuart said.

Indiana is one of just a handful of states that – until this year – didn’t use state money to fund pre-kindergarten programs. Even, now the state has earmarked just $10 million for programs in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. Those counties were chosen from among 19 that applied to participate.

The General Assembly approved the pilot earlier this year, despite initial skepticism from majority Republicans in the Indiana Senate who wanted to study the issue before committing cash to the program. Senate leaders eventually relented – after Gov. Mike Pence made repeated trips to preschools to tout the proposal – but forced the Republican to find the $10 million for preschool within existing social service programs.

The law creates a study to follow the children in the pilot through third grade to determine whether the preschool instruction proves useful. But officials from the business and not-for-profit sectors say the state can’t afford to wait until that study is done.

“We have to start sooner,” said John Pierce, an education consultant who previously served on the Fort Wayne Community Schools Board. “We need to invest in the whole education continuum but we are concerned that our state is investing the least where the potential for return is the greatest.”

Philanthropic and private-sector groups testified they are already spending millions on the effort. “We cannot do this alone,” said Jay Geshay, senior vice president at the United Way of Central Indiana.

Still, some lawmakers remain skeptical. State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said he voted for the preschool pilot “in hopes that it would be different from other government programs we’ve been throwing at this issue for decades with seemingly no results.”

He told Geshay that it seems like “what we’re being led into is an expansion of government into education.”

“I think you heard me very clearly,” Geshay said. “We need a partnership between government and the philanthropic sector.”

Geshay said budget writers should consider pre-kindergarten programs when they write the next school funding formula, which determines how state education funding is divided among districts. And advocates rattled off a litany of statistics meant to show an investment in preschool could actually save the state money.

Stewart said other states that have invested in preschool receive a rate of return of $3 to $12 for each dollar invested in the programs. That’s because students who participate have less need for remedial education services, are less likely to be incarcerated and result in productive workers, she said.

Mike O’Connor, manager of public affairs at Eli Lilly and Co., said at-risk children who do not receive early education opportunities are more likely to drop out of school, become a teen parent and commit a crime.

Pre-kindergarten programs can have a “lasting effect that can reduce problems later in life,” O’Connor said. “It can help break the cycle of poverty.”

The Education Study Committee took no action Monday. The group is scheduled to meet again Oct. 22 when it will discuss a final report, which could include recommendations for the 2015 legislative session.

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