By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Indiana Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS – The state won’t pay to send poor children to preschool anytime soon but business leaders and key Republicans say they plan to keep pushing for the program.
An effort backed by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and United Way has been lobbying legislators to expand preschool opportunities in Indiana, one of nine states that doesn’t directly fund early childhood education.
The campaign hit a wall last week — despite support from Republican Gov. Mike Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma — when a Senate committee created a commission to study the program amid concerns over its cost.
Pence had proposed a voucher-style program to serve up to 44,000 of Indiana’s neediest 4-year-olds. With a push from Bosma, the Republican-controlled House proposed jump-starting the program with a pilot project for about 1,000 children in five counties at a cost of about $10 million per year.
Parents could only use the vouchers at the preschools and child care centers that offer accredited programs focused on academic and social skills. Currently, only about 30 percent of Indiana’s 2,300 child care facilities meet those standards.
But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, the powerful Senate Appropriations chairman, expressed concerns about long-term costs, expected to reach $200 million per year. The Senate Education Committee voted 9-0 last week to strip the House bill and create a study commission. Kenley, who sits on the education committee, called it a “logical step.”
“Instead of just saying ‘We’re for preschool’, we have to be able to say how we’ll pay for it,” said Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, who carried the House bill. “Are we willing to say we’ll spend $200 million less on roads next year? The money has got to come from somewhere.”
PNC Bank regional president Connie Bond Stuart, leader of a coalition of CEOs supporting early education programs, said she was disappointed. But she and her allies vowed to press harder during the summer and into next year to make a case for preschool’s long-range return on investment. They hope to catch legislators before they return to craft the state’s two-year budget.
“It’s one of the best investments we can make in this state,” Stuart said. “… The problem is that it’s long-term investment. You need legislators willing to do the right thing today, in terms of providing the resources to children in poverty, so in the future we have stronger communities, a stronger workforce and less of a gap between those who have nothing and those who have a lot.”
That thinking resonates elsewhere. Over past two years Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi and Montana have enacted new or expanded state-funded preschool programs.
They’ve gotten support from organizations such as ReadyNation, a national group of business leaders pushing for preschool programs for low-income children. They argue that high-quality, early education reduces the number of poor children in costly special education programs and reduces the need for remediation in later grades.
Derek Redelman, education vice-president for the state Chamber, said the business community has been spurred on by research showing the economic benefits of early childhood education. Some of that has come from economists at the Federal Reserve, whose former chairman, Ben Bernanke, has called preschool for poor children “crucial” for reducing poverty and boosting economic growth.
The fiscal aspect of the program is critical, as state revenues in recent months have fallen below predictions. Those lower revenues caused Pence to cut funding to higher education and to order state agencies to revert some of their budgeted dollars back to the state’s general fund.
But cost isn’t the only issue.
Social conservatives in the Senate question the effectiveness of government-funded preschool. They note studies showing the academic impact of the federally funded Head Start program fades by third grade. And they question the veracity of other studies that show long-term benefits of preschool.
They also resist more regulation, having already turned back efforts to increase state standards for those day care centers — now largely unregulated — that accept federal vouchers to cover preschool costs for some low-income Hoosier children.
Preschool providers say they see the value of programs that focus on preparing children with academic and social skills needed to be kindergarten-ready.
“We aren’t just providing a learning environment for the children,” said Connie Hire, director of the Union Hospital Child Development Center in Terre Haute, a top-rated program. “We spend a lot of time with parents, helping them understand how and what their children are learning at this age.”
Proponents of publicly funded preschool must also convince some reluctant legislators that providing such early education should be part of the government’s role. The General Assembly has resisted efforts to lower the mandatory school age of 7.
“As a parent, it’s my responsibility to provide my child with the early education to prepare them for school — not the state’s,” said Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, a former school principal who’s opposed Pence’s preschool plan.
“The government should never try to take the role of a parent unless they’re forced to do it,” he said. “And in this case, I’m not sure it’s our role.”