Recently, we've heard some Indiana policymakers boast about increased economic activity, "deals closed", and job growth for Hoosiers. Many have heralded Gov. Mitch Daniels' announcement that Indiana can finally "afford" full-day kindergarten. This progress is worth applauding, but there is one national ranking that has been omitted from the discussion of our state's future that deserves our undivided attention.
Almost half of all children entering kindergarten throughout the United States and here in Indiana are unprepared for the journey they are about to begin. They have difficulty understanding what they are taught and cannot find the words to tell others of these problems. In the education community these deficiencies are known as language and cognitive delays. This is a shocking and sobering statistic. The effects impact children over their lifetime -- impairing future educational success, and hurting professional and career advancement as they become adults.
What is most troubling about this is that the problem is preventable -- but not yet in Indiana.
There is a clear consensus among educators, economists and researchers that pre-kindergarten education makes a profound difference in improving a child's readiness to learn. Study after study has shown it to be an investment that provides solid economic and social returns: fewer children require special education, more graduate from high school, fewer commit crimes, and, as a group, most enjoy higher earnings in the workplace.
As an educator and legislator, I am relieved we are finally recognizing the value of high-quality early childhood education, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that we are jump-starting Indiana's educational opportunities simply by passing the full-day kindergarten bill in 2007. Regrettably, we will simply be playing catch up.
This fact became very clear to me when I participated in a two-day working conference that was sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the Pew Charitable Trust. Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed and the Indiana Department of Education invited me to take part in the conference as a member of a bipartisan team.
I learned that Indiana is dead last in the country in the amount of money provided for pre-kindergarten education. Indeed, we are one of nine states in the nation that provide no funds in this area. Nor do we supplement the federal Head Start program, which targets the most at-risk children.
We should be alarmed by this ranking, regardless of how much progress has been made in other areas. Despite the overwhelming evidence demonstrating the educational and economic benefits, Indiana still makes no investment in pre-kindergarten programs. Across the nation, policymakers have stopped asking "Why provide pre-k?" They have started asking, "How do we fund pre-k?"
Since 41 other states have caught on to the value of a high-quality pre-kindergarten program, why is Indiana so late getting to the gate? Georgia and Oklahoma offer voluntary pre-kindergarten education to all four-year-olds. Florida has launched its own initiative and added language guaranteeing "a high-quality pre-kindergarten learning opportunity" for every four-year-old to its state constitution.
In 2004, 14 states increased spending on preschool with a collective investment of over $200 million. In 2005, spending was increased an additional $600 million by 26 states. These investments by a majority of states were made despite the same budgetary constraints and effects of the national recession that we faced here in Indiana.
The call for early childhood education enjoys support from across party lines. Of those states that provide funds for pre-kindergarten, half are led by Republican governors and half by Democrats. They realize that high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten is a proven school reform strategy and an economic development strategy that delivers significant, longlasting results.
Overseas, a similar pattern has emerged. In 1997, Great Britain committed to providing free, part-time early education for every three- and four-year old, and officials there have reported stunning successes.
Here in the United States, support for quality pre-kindergarten programming comes from a variety of organizations outside of the educational community. In addition to CCSSO and Pew, other advocates including the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and the Foundation for Child Development, as well as such private sector firms as PNC Financial Services Group, the Federal Reserve Bank and the nationally recognized Committee for Economic Development. Many groups back up their words with significant financial investments, such as PNC's $100 million, 10-year initiative called "Grow Up Great."
Through the years, many of these groups have sponsored conferences across the country to gain added public support for pre-k and early education programs. Participants come from a variety of professions -- researchers, policymakers, business executives, bankers, parents, teachers and others committed to pre-k -- but they sound a common theme.
Pre-k and early education offer strong educational benefits for children. Just as important, these programs provide substantial economic returns and give us a chance to help close the human capital gap that threatens the United States' ability to compete internationally.
There is no excuse for continuing to ignore what 41 other states and several industrialized countries have accepted. Early childhood education, and specifically, pre-kindergarten, is a viable way to ensure a level playing field for all children, narrow the skills gap that we see in society and in the workforce, create higher employment levels and achieve better economic results.
Over the next few months during this election year, we will hear a variety of promises to deliver jobs, improved quality of life and communities, and better education for our children. I encourage voters to listen carefully to these proposals and evaluate their likelihood of delivering results that really matter for Hoosiers. Voters should insist on pre-kindergarten education as a part of the 2007 General Assembly agenda.