Make a significant investment in Indiana’s future

South Bend Tribune

Two years ago, Gov. Mike Pence declared the start of the “education session.”

But by that session’s end, it had become known — nationally known — for something else entirely: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

As the legislative session kicks off this week, lawmakers have the opportunity and the duty to attend to the serious issues surrounding education in the Hoosier state. They can demonstrate their commitment by starting at the very foundation and addressing a long-overdue need to expand prekindergarten. There’s widespread agreement, finally, on the value of pre-K programs that prepare a child, academically and socially, for the school years ahead. Now it’s time for lawmakers to begin expanding the state’s current pilot program, which serves only a small fraction of Indiana children — and none in St. Joseph and Elkhart counties, we might add. The program doesn’t come close to meeting the overwhelming demand, helping about 4 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds — fewer than 2,800 children.

Initial proposals from Republican legislators are focused on modest increases to the pilot program. One lawmaker proposes doubling the pilot by providing $20 million per year, allowing children in five more counties to apply for state aid; House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) talks about expanding the program to an additional 5,000 students.

Such proposals don’t sit well with those who want the state to commit long-term funding for prekindergarten education. Ann Murtlow, CEO of the United Way of Central Indiana, told the Indianapolis Star this week that the state needs to move beyond “pilot thinking.” To do that, lawmakers should commit at least $50 million per year to pre-K, says Murtlow, leader of a coalition that advocates for a funding boost.

Given that Indiana was one of the last states to begin investing in preschool, it will take some time to reach every Hoosier child. And the goal is high-quality preschool — programs that meet certain academic standards critical for a student to see long-term benefits from pre-K attendance.

As lawmakers consider figures in this budget session, they should keep these numbers in mind, from a report issued by the Indiana Happy Babies Brain Trust, as they weigh the costs of pre-K:

There are more than 250,000 infants and toddlers in Indiana. Of those, 65 percent are in families where they require care outside the home, because they live in families where all parents are in the labor force. However, there are only 24,551 high-quality slots available for infants and toddlers, which is just enough for 15 percent.

Even the most optimistic don’t expect this year’s General Assembly will expand quality pre-K statewide. But in this budget year, it’s critical that the state invest in the future with a significant expansion of pre-K.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association.