Mark Bennett: How's Indiana doing in early childhood education? The views differ

·5 min read

Aug. 6—Education benefits kids even before they reach kindergarten.

Youngsters growing up in impoverished households particularly benefit from early learning opportunities.

A lot of Hoosiers agree with those conclusions and supported the concept well before many of their elected state officials. Eighty-two percent of Indiana residents favored state-funded pre-kindergarten education for all kids whose families wanted it, according to the 2014 Hoosier Survey, an annual statewide poll by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University. Since then, Indiana launched its On My Way Pre-K program for low-income 4-year-olds in 2015, which has grown gradually from a five-county pilot program to serving 4,793 children statewide in the 2021-22 school year.

More Information

—To view WalletHub's "States with the Best and Worst Early Education Systems" rankings, go online to https://bit.ly/3SmzS1E.

—To view the NIEER's "The State of Preschool 2021" report on Indiana, go online to https://bit.ly/3QpnzQe.

—To learn more about On My Way Pre-K, go online to https://bit.ly/3QFdhMn.

But 84,598 4-year-olds live in Indiana, according to U.S. Census and Matt Kinghorn senior demographer for the Indiana Business Research Center at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Comparatively, nearly one-third of 4-year-olds nationwide are enrolled in state-funded early childhood education, or pre-K, CNHI reported earlier this year.

A total of 2,402 kids had enrolled in On My Way Pre-K for the upcoming 2022-23 school year, as of July 1.

Is that enough? And, how well is Indiana doing in early childhood education?

The 2022 States with the Best and Worst Early Education Systems, conducted annually by the personal-finance website WalletHub, ranked Indiana 51st in the country, last among the states and the District of Columbia. That report released Tuesday measured access to state-funded pre-K programs, their quality and per-child spending. It used data from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, Education Commission of the States, and The National Women's Law Center.

A diverse mix of states topped the list. Arkansas, Nebraska, Maryland, the District, Rhode Island, Alabama, Oregon, Vermont, West Virginia and New Mexico comprised the top 10. Neighboring Illinois ranked 17th. The bottom five included New Hampshire, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota and finally Indiana.

The Indiana Department of Education disputes the accuracy of the WalletHub rankings because of a primary component in the calculations.

In its report, "The State of Preschool 2021," the National Institute for Early Education Research (or NIEER) does not include Indiana's On My Way Pre-K as a state-funded preschool education program "because a few years ago, it essentially tied eligibility for the program to eligibility for child-care subsidies" and parental employment requirements, Allison Friedman-Krauss said in an email interview this week. Data from the annual NIEER report factors into the WalletHub rankings.

NIEER's exclusion of On My Way Pre-K creates a skewed picture of pre-kindergarten education in Indiana, the IDOE said in response to the rankings.

"This short-sighted approach is inaccurate and distorts the results of this survey," Holly Lawson, IDOE deputy director of communications said Wednesday by email. "On My Way Pre-K provides high-quality, year-round pre-K for our youngest Hoosiers without co-pays for families."

Families qualify if they earn less than 127% of the federal poverty level and the parents are working, going to school, attending job training or looking for a job. Limited vouchers are available for households earning up to 185% of the poverty level. The state allocates $22 million yearly for the program.

A Purdue University study showed On My Way Pre-K students were better prepared for kindergarten than other low-income Hoosier kids and scored higher on state tests."They gain an academic advantage well into third and fourth grade," Lawson said.

Also, Gov. Eric Holcomb last spring signed into law expansion and restructuring of the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee to address needed changes and support systems.

Still, a main reason Indiana ranks so low in the NIEER and WalletHub rankings is the limited scope of the state's pre-K program, including the parental work requirements.

"A young child's need for education does not depend on parental work status," said NIEER's Friedman-Krauss. "Access to kindergarten and higher levels of education is not contingent on parental employment and child care needs. Indeed, children with one or more parents out of the workforce may have more limited ability than other families to access high-quality early education without public funding."

Plus, the number of kids in the program is about 2% of the state's 3- and 4-year-olds, Friedman-Krauss added. (Many other states' pre-K programs include both age groups.)

"To suggest this is a meaningful opportunity to most of Indiana's families is misleading," she said. "No doubt, every child receiving child care in Indiana would benefit from the higher standards required for [On My Way Pre-K], but this is not offered more generally."

Indiana also scored low in the sub-categories of the WalletHub rankings — 48th in share of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K, pre-K special education, and Head Start; 46th in total reported spending per child enrolled in preschool; 35th in monthly child-care co-payment fees as a percent of family income and 42 in pre-K program growth. On a more positive side, Indiana did rank 25th in the change in state spending per child enrolled in preschool from 2018-19 to 2019-2020.

Preschool can be years "when kids get excited about going to school, socializing and playing games with their peers," said Tonya Pfaff, the state representative for Indiana District 43 and Terre Haute. She also noted the stronger performance in school and life later for those kids.

"We as a state need to commit to funding early education so that every child who wants to attend pre-K has the opportunity," she said. "Nothing less than the future of our state depends on it."

Most Hoosiers agree.

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