MEREDITH: Mandatory kindergarten, pre-K are no-brainers

January 14, 2017

A surefire way to boost our state’s economy is to invest in early childhood education. Offering full-day, mandatory kindergarten and universal pre-K would result in improved instruction in grades K-12 and start our kids off on the right foot.

Early childhood development experts confirm that learning, social behaviors and emotional and cognitive functions are formed in the early stages of development. Our state policymakers must look to build the foundation for learning by offering developmentally sound early education for our next generation of workers and leaders.

The first step is to offer full-day, mandatory kindergarten for all 5-year-olds. Indiana is one of 35 states that does not require children to attend kindergarten (data from 2014). While it might seem Indiana is the norm, not mandating kindergarten is leaving some kids with a deficit when they start first grade, requiring educators to spend more time with these students—at the loss of instruction to others—to achieve grade-level literacy and math skills.

Offering universal pre-K goes hand-in-hand with full-day, mandatory kindergarten. The results of a paired pre-K and half-day kindergarten program include “higher reading skills by the third grade than those who attend full-day kindergarten alone,” according to a study by the Center for Public Education.

However, Indiana is late to the game in offering options for pre-K. Until a state-sponsored pre-K program was passed in 2014, Indiana was one of only nine states that did not offer state-funded pre-K. According to Kids Count, 60 percent of Hoosier 3- and 4-year-olds were not enrolled in any type of preschool from 2012 to 2014. Indiana’s pre-K program provides grants to 4-year-olds from low-income families in five counties: Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh. These limited parameters meant that less than 1 percent of Indiana’s 4-year-olds had the option to apply in the program’s first year.

This is not enough. As a kindergarten teacher, I have firsthand knowledge of kids who have had access to some type of pre-K or preschool program. They start kindergarten more receptive to learning through developed behavioral and social skills and often have the basics of letters and numbers to jump-start literacy and mathematical learning.

A study published by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute concluded that every dollar spent on state preschool programs equaled a $3 to $4 return resulting from more productive future workers, less incarceration, increased cumulative income taxes and more. Other studies have found even higher dollar-for-dollar returns on investment.

It is important to stress that not all preschool offerings are equal. Indiana must focus our pre-K growth on high-quality instruction centered on child development milestones. Pre-K educators should have access to professional development and supports. These key markers define “high-quality” and have demonstrated improved student outcomes and classroom quality.

We must, and can, do better. Offering high-quality, universal early childhood education starts with every student. Our state could reap as high as a 13 percent annual return when all factors are monetized (reduced crime, reduced health care costs, increased earnings, etc.). Just think what it means for our kids.

We must give every child, no matter his or her ZIP code, an opportunity to achieve.•

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