The head of the state Senate Democratic caucus is calling for a “positive discussion” on a proposal he backs to drop the mandatory school age in Indiana from 7 to 5 and to provide millions of dollars to provide pre-kindergarten education in every school district in the state.
Neither idea is new, but Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said it’s time to focus on moving forward the conversation about education reform and for that to include dramatically expanding early childhood education opportunities for all Hoosier children.
“The payoff is clear,” Lanane said. “High-quality pre-K programs produce students who are more likely to graduate from high school, earn a higher income, own a home and less likely to require remediation or commit crimes.”
Lanane called a press conference to announce his initiative, saying it came after weeks of “controversial if not downright negative news about education.” Over the past few months, education news in Indiana has been focused on a series of failures and scandals, ranging from the long-delayed release of results of the ISTEP standardized test to allegations that the state’s former schools chief, Tony Bennett, manipulated the A-to-F school rating system.
Lanane said it was time to have a “good, old-fashioned legislative debate” on the state’s role in educating some of its youngest citizens.
The cost of providing pre-kindergarten education to every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in the state could reach $200 million a year — about the same the state now spends on kindergarten. The Indiana General Assembly has already passed a budget for the next two years, so additional funding requests likely would not be considered until the next budget session in 2015.
But Lanane said the legislature could take up the debate in 2014, which is a short legislative session that must end by March 14. “We find these ideas take a while,” he said. “We think the short session would be an ideal time to have a good hard discussion about it. And we believe to even make a commitment, but if nothing else to get the discussion going.”
Indiana is one of 11 states that doesn’t provide public money for pre-school.
In this past legislative session, House Republicans supported a two-year, $7 million pilot project that would have provided pre-kindergarten education for 1,000 children from low-income families. The funding was reduced to $4 million in the final budget.
Part of the initiative that Lanane supports includes lowering Indiana’s mandatory school age to 5. That may drive more children into kindergarten, which currently isn’t mandatory in Indiana.
In late August, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a measure that lowers that state’s mandatory school attendance age to 6 from 7 starting in fall 2014. The law was prompted in part by a Chicago Tribune investigation last fall that found nearly 18 percent of the city's kindergartners and first-graders were classified as “chronic truants.”
Illinois school officials supported the measure but warned it would be difficult to enforce.
Indiana is one of 14 states whose minimum school age is 7. Two states require school attendance at age 8. The mandatory school age is 6 in 26 states, and age 5 in eight states and the District of Columbia.
In Indiana, past proposals to drop mandatory school age have been defeated by opponents who said the measure would infringe on parental rights and swell the costs of education.
Lanane said the investment the state would make in paying for pre-kindergarten education and spending more dollars on kindergarten — as more 5 and 6 students enroll — would pay off down the road.
He cited a March 2012 report issued by the Indiana Education Roundtable, a policy advisory board, that found children enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to go onto college, less likely to be arrested as adults, and more likely to be employed as adults.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.