Preschool education has become a top priority for the Indiana Chamber and for countless members throughout the state. The prospects for making significant improvements to our state’s educational levels will remain challenging as long as large numbers of children are entering kindergarten unprepared for school. Moreover, those challenges are compounded and are impacting all Indiana students as schools are forced to deal with wide gaps in achievement levels.
Those are just two of the reasons for the preschool emphasis. It is critically important that Indiana join the vast majority of other states in providing funding that will help low-income parents to access their choice of preschool programs that are educationally based and accountable for outcomes.
During the 2014 legislative session, Indiana took a small step in addressing this challenge by approving a $10 million pilot program in five Indiana counties. To be certain, it was a good step forward – driven in large part by the leadership of Gov. Pence and House Republicans. But it fell far short of Indiana’s needs.
Fortunately, an opportunity arose shortly after the session to greatly expand those funds through a federal grant program that would provide $20 million per year for four years. Indeed, Indiana was identified as one of just two states that would receive “priority status” in the grant. Accordingly, staff from the governor’s office, the Department of Education and other preschool advocates began working on the application, which was due for completion this month.
Gov. Pence, however, announced last minute – just as the proposal was being completed and readied for submission – that Indiana would not apply for the funds. He cited concerns about federal intrusion and the desire to implement a program that is best for Hoosiers. But to the frustration of advocates and commentators across the state, he has not yet offered specifics on those concerns.
To be certain, this is a politically charged issue. Even the pilot program would not have happened if the Governor had not ignored pleas to the contrary and appeared, in person, to advocate for the program in the Senate. What ultimately did pass was the result of hard negotiating by the Governor and House Republicans with the Senate.
Yet, it remains disappointing that Gov. Pence chose to take a pass on this new opportunity. If Senate leaders were concerned about funding – as seemed clear in the legislative debates – then this was a unique opportunity to expand Indiana’s program with outside funds. If federal strings were a genuine problem (not just the prospect of a problem), then the specifics of that challenge were not made apparent.
Meanwhile, Indiana is proceeding with its pilot program. The Indiana Chamber is hopeful that the “pilot” aspect of the program will focus strictly on administration matters and not be used by opponents to revisit, yet again, whether preschool is needed and effective. Those questions have been answered. Preschool is a key strategy in the Chamber-led Indiana Vision 2025 plan to help achieve the goal of eliminating achievement gaps. The state must move farther and do it faster to accomplish the goals and the vision to make Indiana a “global leader in innovation and economic opportunity where enterprises and citizens prosper.”
Preschool thus again becomes a priority issue in the upcoming legislative session. It’s disappointing that Indiana’s foray into this important issue will not be bolstered by the outside financial support that was made available – and that any additional investment will fall fully on Indiana taxpayers.