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Editorial: Costly for state to delay preschool program


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An Indiana Senate panel gutted a bill that would have made preschool more available and affordable for at-risk children and in the process compounded the problem of the state lagging behind others in early education.

This comes at a time when Indiana needs to make educational gains and provide workers with more advanced skills to meet the needs of employers.

Instead of providing greater educational opportunities for preschoolers, the state is paralyzed in endless studies and debate.

The pilot program in five counties would use vouchers to send children to school. Preschool-age children from families earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level would qualify for up to $6,800 to attend public, private or parochial preschools.

However, the Senate Education Committee transformed the bill — previously approved in the House — into a summer study issue on Wednesday. If the bill is passed by the Senate, the pilot plan language could be restored during negotiations between both chambers. But that seems unlikely.

A similar bill failed last year. Legislation to create a 1,000-student preschool pilot program funded with state money stalled in the state Senate.

It’s mind-boggling that more lawmakers don’t take the message of the importance of early education to heart.

Gov. Mike Pence testified before senators about a week ago in favor of the House plan when it seemed in danger. It was the first time since Pence took office that he testified on a measure.

Proponents of last year’s state-funded preschool initiative said three of every four at-risk 4-year-olds go without access to early childhood learning programs. Data showed Indiana’s statewide high school dropout rate was 15 percent.

Pence spoke of the need for pre-kindergarten education in January 2013, during his first State of the State speech since winning the gubernatorial election the prior November. He highlighted community solutions.

“One of the best examples is the Busy Bees Academy in Columbus, which serves at-risk and disadvantaged children in my hometown. Let’s work together to expand incentives for Hoosiers to support this kind of innovative, community-driven pre-K effort for our low-income children,” Pence said during the speech.

Busy Bees started four years ago when Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. partnered with the Community Education Coalition and Heritage Fund: The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County to address a lack of educational attention paid to 4-year-olds.

Columbus-based engine maker Cummins Inc., a successful Fortune 500 company that also is challenged by the skills gap, supports and champions Busy Bees.

“If (state government) were a business, we would invest right now, 100 percent, and we would not pilot anything. We already know every answer to every question, and we would do it exactly like Busy Bees,” Mark Gerstle, then-vice president of community affairs for Cummins, told The Republic after Pence’s first State of the State speech.

Gerstle added the Busy Bees curriculum had almost every student reading at a kindergarten level upon entering kindergarten.

Cummins has such a commitment to preschool students that it has its own child care facility, the Cummins Child Care Development Center. This year’s pilot program has hit a roadblock because lawmakers are concerned about slumping tax collections, how to pay for the millions it would cost and the fact that the next two-year budget will be hammered out next year.

Those concerns are understandable, but the cost to Indiana for further delays could be immense.

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