DANIELS: Pre-K is an investment we can’t afford to ignore

March 11, 2017

Many funding priorities face the General Assembly this year.

Our roads and bridges desperately need to be improved. The opioid crisis has led to a dramatic increase in children in need of protection by the state. A serious obesity problem, high smoking rate and related health problems require attention. There is a crying need for more mental health and substance abuse treatment. Both legislative and executive-branch leadership appropriately wish to focus resources on career training.

Well, here’s one more—a need at least as critical to our state’s economic future as any other.

Indiana is one of only eight states that does not have publicly funded pre-kindergarten.

An analysis conducted by Indiana University for the Indy Chamber, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, United Way of Central Indiana and The Glick Fund indicates that high-quality pre-K reduces the need for special education, remediation and grade repetition. It will lead to an increase in the future earnings of the children who receive it and reduce the likelihood that they will commit crimes later in life.

The 2017 Annual Report of the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee found a majority of children ages 0-5 in families that work are not enrolled in high-quality pre-K. Those least likely to receive high-quality pre-K are nearly 27,000 lower-income children whose parents cannot afford it. These students will start kindergarten ill-prepared and will continue to fall behind their peers as the years go by. This is a significant aspect of the cycle of poverty and the immense difficulty a child in poverty will have of breaking into the middle class.

To their credit, legislators approved a pilot pre-K program in 2014, but it serves only five counties. In Marion County alone, 5,000 children whose parents sought their inclusion in the program failed to win a seat in the lottery for the limited number of slots available.

Based on the preliminary results of the pilot and the experiences of other states, it is clear that expansion is appropriate, advisable and urgently needed.

The governor has called for doubling funding for high-quality pre-K, to $20 millionper year. Rep. Bob Behning, recognizing the lack of sufficiently trained pre-K teachers, wants to invest in building capacity as well. But even $20 million isn’t enough to move the needle significantly. And now the Senate Appropriations Committee has slashed the modest$10 million increase to a nearly useless $3 million.

Clearly, the suggestion made by some for universal public pre-K is unrealistic. However, our low-income children should be a top priority, and they need our help the most. Only 31 percent of low-income Hoosier children ages 3-4 attend any type of pre-K program. And Indiana’s poverty rate has been growing, with now more than 25 percent of our children living in poverty and 62 percent deemed low-income (significantly above the national average of47 percent). They’ll never escape without a better educational foundation.

I have tremendous respect for our lawmakers, but respectfully and strenuously disagree with the belief of some that pre-K for these children is simply an abrogation of parental responsibilities. Rather, it is a wise investment in our state’s future.

The figure that has been proposed to get us closer to meeting the need in Indiana is $50 million per year. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce advocates for up to that amount, despite its clear recognition of other statewide needs.

Road and bridge construction is estimated to cost $1 billion. Doesn’t $50 million for our kids’ future sound like a bargain by comparison?•

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