Pre-K must be regarded with long-term focus

By Tami Silverman

Is there really anything else to say on the value of pre-K? Yes, and here we go: The sooner we view pre-K as a long-term educational, economic, and workforce development strategy, the sooner we can build the necessary network of high-quality pre-K options. Our kids deserve access to quality pre-K. Our state needs the long-lasting benefits these programs can deliver. And until every Indiana child has access to high quality pre-K, this conversation must continue.

Early Learning Indiana reports that 7 out of 10 Indiana voters currently support a pre-K expansion, especially for impoverished children. Yet it’s clear that not all pre-K programs produce the results needed to justify the investment. To be effective, pre-K expansion must make available high-quality programs, robust accessibility, include sound outcome evaluation and demonstrate the impact of the investment.

Quality is key. Children enrolled in high-quality pre-K show significantly greater educational, social and emotional gains than those enrolled in lower-quality programs. Quality pre-K programs allow kindergarten teachers to focus on learning rather than catching up unprepared children. Research shows when states prioritize rapid expansion over quality they have a higher share of children whose gains fade by early elementary school. But the gains tied to high-quality programs persist longer.

While the number of high-quality programs in Indiana has increased dramatically, there still aren’t enough to meet demand. Sixty-eight percent of eligible Hoosier children lack access to quality pre-K. In many rural areas, quality pre-K options are lacking or nonexistent. The Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee’s 2017 Annual Report shows that only one in every five programs currently meets Indiana’s quality requirements.

The National Institute for Early Education Research evaluates each state on 10 quality standards. Indiana meets three of them.

Accessibility is tied to affordability. Children living in poverty are impacted most by the lack of quality options. Right now the financial responsibility falls on parents, said Ted Maple with Early Learning Indiana. Hoosier families spend a higher share of their incomes on pre-K than families in many other states.

Understanding the stiff competition for funding, national and state experts quantified the cost-benefit ratio associated with high-quality pre-K programs. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman released a study concluding that high-quality programs for disadvantaged children can deliver an annual return of 13 percent on upfront costs, through educational outcomes, health, employment and social behavior benefits, such as crime reduction. Using Indiana-specific data, the advisory committee estimated that high-quality, state-funded programs will yield between three and four dollars of anticipated benefits for every dollar invested. Those returns are based on program expansions in Oklahoma and Georgia, states with economic, political and practical similarities to Indiana.

As Indiana is poised to take the next step in pre-K programming, ultimately improving our overall child well-being, quality is nonnegotiable. Michael Conn-Powers, director of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community’s Early Childhood Center at Indiana University, says “we do need to ensure we have, not just capacity, but high-quality capacity.”

Quality pre-K expansion is a substantial investment. There are no easy, quick or inexpensive options. But it’s a long-term investment that promises big dividends. “It’s not just a moral argument, while that’s an important part of it, it’s an economic argument,” said Maple. “If the state wants to have a productive workforce and a place that has a great quality of life, then it needs to invest more.”

Quality pre-K expansion is important for our children. It’s crucial for our workforce development strategies and our economy. In order to reap the benefits that high-quality pre-K expansion offers, we need to take a long-term perspective and continue the conversation.

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.