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September 16, 2013

Debate: Investing in early-childhood education

INDIANAPOLIS — Should Indiana children wait until they are 7 years old before they step into a classroom?

That’s a question that state Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane thinks is worthy of a vigorous debate in the next legislative session.

Lanane, of Anderson, called a press conference last week to announce a plan, backed by Indiana Senate Democrats, to create a universal early childhood education program in Indiana and lower the state’s mandatory school age to 5 from 7.

But he didn’t capture as much attention as he’d hoped, for a couple of reasons: One, because the day’s news was dominated by another Associated Press story alleging wrongdoing by former state schools chief Tony Bennett. Two, because the Senate Democrats’ call for the state to invest millions of dollars into educating some of its youngest citizens is an idea that’s been floated — and failed — before.

Lanane, though, is an optimist. Soft-spoken, thoughtful, and low-key, he’s somewhat of a heretic in this current brutal age of partisan politics. When asked about the timing of his announcement, he explained: “We find these ideas take a while.” By that, I’m assuming he means public-policy ideas that have some complexity to them.

The right age for children to start school and the role the state should play in funding early childhood education seems worthy of the “good, old-fashioned legislative debate” for which Lanane has called.

It’s a debate going on right now in England, only turned upside down: Some education reformers there want to push up the mandatory age that children start school, from its current 5 to 7. Their argument: Early schooling is causing “profound damage” to children because it robs them of their time to play and be creative by forcing them into too much rigor and regimen too soon.

The argument on this side of ocean has long been a different view. Early childhood education advocates here say early schooling can have a profoundly good impact on children’s later success in school and go a long way to closing the achievement gap between rich and poor.

Lanane is particularly interested in closing that achievement gap, which shows up time and time again for schoolchildren in Indiana — one of 11 states that doesn’t put public funds into pre-kindergarten programs.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Education released the results of the IREAD-3 test, which measures the reading proficiency of third-graders. Ninety-four percent of white students passed the test. Only 81 percent of black students did. Only 74 percent of children who don’t speak English as their native language passed IREAD-3, and that was only after students who failed the test the first time received intensive remediation. That kind of gap echoes on every standardized test administered to Hoosier schoolchildren.

Of course, for the conversation on early childhood education to go forward, it will require the blessing of the Republicans, who hold a super-majority in both the House and Senate. Lanane may have a prayer: It was House Republicans who tried, but failed, to get $14 million put into the state budget to pay for a two-year pilot project to provide a high-quality, pre-kindergarten program for children from low-income families.

Money is the big stumbling block: Lanane estimates it may cost up to $200 million a year for local schools to offer pre-kindergarten to the estimated 180,000 children who would be eligible. That’s a fraction of the $7 billion that now goes to Indiana’s K-12 schools.

Here’s another piece of the conversation that may be coming on this issue: President Obama wants to spend about $75 billion to expand pre-kindergarten education nationwide, with much of the money coming from a federal tax increase of 94 cents a pack on cigarettes. States could tap into that national account if they agreed to contribute a portion of the cost for expanding early childhood education in their schools.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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