News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

December 13, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Beware Ignorance and Want and reap the benefits of early education

TERRE HAUTE — Pretend that Charles Dickens is about to become Indiana’s next governor.

(Yes, the famed British author would be 200 years old. And, yes, he’s been dead since 1870. But suspend your disbelief momentarily, and work with me. Assume Dickens is in his prime, at age 31, just as he was when he wrote, “A Christmas Carol.”)

The top item on Gov. Dickens’ agenda would be to start funding preschool education in the Hoosier state. No doubt.

One of Dickens’ primary objectives in writing that Christmas classic often gets overshadowed by scenes of Ebenezer Scrooge confronting his selfishness, cold-hearted deeds and regrets. Instead, focus on the Ghost of Christmas Present and the two children he reveals — Ignorance and Want. Most kids in 1840s London lived in abject poverty, received little or no schooling, and died more frequently than adults. Dickens believed free public education was the ticket to breaking that cycle of poverty, and hoped his novel would illustrate its importance.

In “A Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to twin children. “This boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want,” the ghost tells the infamous curmudgeon. “Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware of this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is ‘Doom,’ unless the writing be erased.” In a nutshell, a lack of education leads to poverty. Education is the remedy.

Twenty-first century Indiana is not 19th-century London, yet the poverty cycle exists here and now. Forty-eight percent of Hoosier public-school kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In Vigo County, 54 percent of kids receive those lunches. The numbers have steadily risen for years.

Meanwhile, Indiana remains one of just 11 states with no public funding for preschool education, and is the most populous of those. All of our neighboring states publicly fund pre-kindergarten to some degree. The concept is not cheap, and its implementation would be complex, given the existing network of private and faith-based preschools, as well as the federally funded Head Start program. Still, the long-term benefits would offset the up-front costs and the logistical hurdles.

In the past four years, the state has committed resources to far less proven education “reforms.” By contrast, the merits of pre-K education are widely documented. At a summit in Georgia this year, the National Institute for Early Education Research offered statistics on the impact of public preschool availability there. Kids living in poverty, who don’t attend preschool, often begin kindergarten behind their peers academically and socially. With preschool, classroom performance and behavior improved throughout their school years, with less special-education demands. High school and college graduation rates improved. As adults, those students earned better paychecks, adopted healthier lifestyles, and were less likely to be incarcerated or receiving public assistance.

In the long-run, taxpayers received a $12.90 return for every $1 spent publicly to educate Georgia preschoolers, according to that study.

As with London, Indiana is not Georgia. But this isn’t an apples-to-oranges comparison. Kids are kids, and “Hoosier common sense” — the mantra politicians love to invoke — suggests that Indiana could use more high school and college graduates, who generally help make this a better place to live. Perhaps the best news in the wake of last month’s election is that state funding of preschool initiatives has reached some legislators’ radar screens.

The actual governor-elect, Mike Pence, has voiced support for broadening access to pre-kindergarten education for low-income kids. House Speaker Brian Bosma mentioned some structure of state-funded preschool (perhaps using vouchers for use at public or private facilities) as a priority, heading into the 2013 session of the General Assembly. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce recognizes those long-run economic rewards ($12.90 back for every $1 paid), and is urging the Legislature to fund public preschool, targeting the neediest families.

State-backed, full-day kindergarten — accessible to all families who want it — is still a new concept in Indiana. This week, Gov. Mitch Daniels announced that a state grant program will distribute $190 million to expand full-day kindergarten for the next two years. Kindergarten enrollment — still not mandatory in Indiana — jumped 19 percent in 2011-12.

Obviously, Hoosiers are just getting warmed up to the full-day K idea; paying to educate 4-year-old preschoolers (routine practice elsewhere) sounds even edgier here.

Nonetheless, it makes sense — economically, socially and academically — today, and 20 years from now.

Indiana is not an affluent state, and some well-intentioned proposals aren’t affordable. A universal, state-funded preschool program won’t likely happen soon, but a targeted system with well-screened, well-staffed facilities is doable.

Terry Spradlin, director of education policy at the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, crunched some numbers this week to help explain a feasible preschool program. Indiana is home to 88,691 4-year-olds, according to the 2010 Census. If the state focused on the 48.2 percent receiving free or reduced lunches, and subtracted those already enrolled in special education preschools and federally funded Head Start classes, approximately 30,000 at-risk children would remain. Based on the per-student preschool costs in surrounding states, Indiana would pay $122 million to $140 million, Spradlin estimated.

Then again, using that $12.90-to-$1 payback formula, Hoosier taxpayers would save more than $1 billion through those kids’ adulthood.

“We will reap those benefits for years to come once we implement those programs,” Spradlin said.

Charles Dickens would smile.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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