In Niki Kelly’s July 6 story "Expand pre-K: Question is how," Republican and Democratic candidates for governor and leaders of the Indiana Senate and House expressed support for expanding state investment in pre-K. That would help Indiana catch up with the 42 other states that already have state-funded pre-K. It would also support the Big Goal Collaborative aspiration to ensure that all children in our 11 northeast Indiana counties are prepared for success in kindergarten. Children who are not ready are far less likely to graduate from high school, let alone attain the quality post-secondary credentials and degrees to provide the skilled workforce our region’s employers need to compete in a global economy – our Big Goal.
Some legislators are not yet convinced. Rep. Dave Ober, R-Albion, said he wants to know: "Does it (pre-K) work? Is there a return on investment?" He is asking the right questions. If he and other legislators look carefully at the mass of evidence, they will discover that high-quality programs work and poor-quality ones don’t. Ones that work result in better academic success for children in elementary school – and beyond. Research on the Perry Preschool and the Chicago Parent Centers, for example, showed returns to society of $4 to $11 for every $1 invested.
Another concern was that the academic achievement scores between preschool participants and non-participants converged over time in some studies. What the Chicago, Perry, and Abecedarian studies showed is that preschool participants were far more successful as adults. Isn’t that what matters? They earned more income and had more stable families. They relied less on welfare and had less involvement with the criminal justice system than children who did not have quality pre-K experiences.
Indiana has the opportunity to learn from the states that have preceded us with state support for quality pre-K. A new report from The Learning Policy Institute warns not to grow so quickly that quality suffers. Tennessee made that mistake.
The report said four states have done pre-K especially well based on kindergarten readiness, high school graduation rates and other measures. They are Michigan, North Carolina, West Virginia and Washington. Hiring highly qualified teachers and helping them continually improve their skills through coaching and professional development were hallmarks of the best programs. They also provide strong family engagement and support.
We can also learn from our two Indiana pilot pre-K programs that use a "mixed delivery system." Families appreciate the freedom to choose from high-quality child-care centers, family child-care homes, registered ministries, public and private schools, and Head Start programs to meet their needs. We can also benefit from the expertise of the 150 early-childhood experts who have been part of the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee and its seven workgroups. We strongly encourage state legislators to consult these professionals.
Then we should create a high-quality, statewide pre-K system that works for the benefit of all Hoosier children, families, teachers, taxpayers and employers. Quality must be the cornerstone. That means investing in educating and training high-quality teachers and paying them for the value they contribute. We need to invest up front in the capacity of programs to expand with quality so all children have the opportunity to succeed.
According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, the foundation of lifelong learning, behavior and health is built in early childhood. Whether it is developing a child’s brain or a state pre-K system, nothing is more important than creating a strong foundation to build on over time. That’s a lesson many of us learned early in life by stacking little wooden blocks.
Let’s stand together and encourage our legislators to support an expanded investment in quality pre-K. Fort Wayne, northeast Indiana and our state need all children to arrive at the kindergarten starting line with an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of ZIP code or family circumstance.