Early childhood education is very, very important! In a state-by-state comparison of early childhood education programs and efforts, Indiana is in last place... but at least we are tied for last place!

How important is early childhood education? One of the most effective means of helping children to read on-level by third grade has proven to be early childhood education, which directly impacts the high school drop-out rate. Quite simply, early childhood education is one of the leading means by which society can reduce the “school-to-prison” pipeline, which costs the average taxpayer $14,823 per year for each incarcerated person in Indiana state prisons (Vera Institute of Justice, 2010). These conservative estimates from 2010 are considered far lower than the true prison cost found throughout Indiana today.

Aside from the long-term societal cost that are inversely related to investments in early childhood education, the benefits for each child for whom an early childhood education program is available are staggering. Students who attend an early childhood program are less likely to be held back through grade retention. Early childhood education, such as preschool, allows students to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

For decades, studies have indicated that a tremendous “word gap” already exists by age three; and the size of a child’s vocabulary had a direct impact on their learning in elementary school and on their long-term success (Hart, B. & Risley, T. The Early Catastrophe. 2003). Unfortunately, this gap often continues to widen even after a leveling effect of primary education that begins for all students at age five or later.

One means of reducing this word gap is to provide early childhood opportunities for all students, especially students living in poverty. Some federally-funded efforts, such as Head Start, have been in place since 1965, when it began as an eight-week summer preparation program as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society Campaign. A year later, Head Start was expanded to become a year-round program and has since grown to educate over a million students across the United States and its territories, with a focus on early learning, health, and family well-being. Of course, Head Start has had other historical milestones, including the funding of a children’s television program that would become Sesame Street.

How, exactly, did we reach this point, and why has early childhood education become such a hot topic amongst community leaders, parents, politicians, and others? Before preschool was introduced to public schools, came kindergarten. The German concept of a “kindergarten” was first introduced by Friedrich Froebel in Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837, where children were described by Froebel as plants and teachers as gardeners; thus, “kinder” meaning children and “garten” meaning garden became the term we are familiar with today (Headley, 1965). In the United States, most kindergarten programs began in cities. In Indianapolis, a “Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Society” was formed in 1884, with a “Kindergarten and Primary Normal Training School” following in 1890 and ultimately becoming part of Butler University’s Education Department (Gould, M. 1993).

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Indiana saw significant growth of kindergarten programs following the launching of Sputnik by Russia in 1957 and a desire by the United States to close the academic gap amongst students as research conducted in the 1960s provided further confirmation of the benefits of kindergarten (Mindess, M. & Keliher, A. , 1967). Throughout the late 20th century and into the early 2000s, educators turned their focus on the growing trend of moving from half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten programs as further studies indicated the success of such programs. From the 1970s to 2012, the percentage of kindergarten full-day programs compared to half-day programs grew from 10 percent to 76 percent (USA Today, 1/13/2014). For the 2012-2013 school year, Indiana made the important step of fully-funding a universal, voluntary, full-day kindergarten program as the result of a final push in 2011 by then-Governor Mitch Daniels based on Indiana’s revenue forecasts.

The majority of research concerning kindergarten shows correlations between student academic success and early childhood education. The facts continue to show the benefits of investing in early childhood education or “preschool.” As times have changed, the value of preschool has become equally evident. Preschool programs provide social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development for students. The skills, once learned in kindergarten, are now considered necessary to be appropriately “ready-to-learn” when entering kindergarten today.

The benefits of preschool and early childhood education have become a foregone conclusion with most states funding these programs in part, or whole. However, Indiana remains one of the few states that leaves this fiscal responsibility to the federal government and/or local communities. In Kokomo, school leaders have taken it upon themselves to find ways to utilize other federal grants and have worked with local organizations, such as the Community Foundation of Howard County, to expand preschool opportunities for a greater number of Howard County students. However, some students remain on a waiting list. That’s right. Many students in our community who need educational opportunities that have proven to be successful cannot take advantage of preschool because of limited resources.

What is our State legislature doing? Nothing...Yet. Indiana is one of the few states that can’t even agree that we should make kindergarten compulsory for students as our State currently doesn’t require students to attend school until they are age seven.

Indiana’s elected State leaders seem to prefer to count solely on Federal dollars for this vital program. The time has come to step-up to the proverbial plate and have a serious conversation about preschool education, and it is past time to find a way to provide state funding for it. To be fair, Indiana is not alone in this trend. According to the most recent “State of Preschool 2015,” published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, Indiana is joined by Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming as having “NO PROGRAM!” Perhaps realizing this embarrassing statistic, State leaders in Indiana started a “pilot State pre-K program” in 2014-2015 so that we could move slowly into a program that is already being done by 42 states and Washington D.C. Our neighbors in Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio all have state-funded preschool programs for 15 to 36 percent of their 4-year-old population; and three of these states – Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan – have programs serving, respectively, 4 percent, 11 percent, and 28 percent of their 3-year-old preschool population. The truth is that Indiana leaders appear concerned about the cost of a preschool program.

It’s time for Indiana leaders to stop using State revenues, and fiscal excuses, for not doing what is needed for Hoosier children. Early childhood education already has proven to help eliminate achievement gaps, reduce high school dropouts, increase literacy levels, and reduce long-term societal cost for communities. It’s time for Indiana leaders to do what is right. It’s time for Indiana leaders to comprehensively fund early childhood education. Indiana has recently prided itself on leading the nation in voucher and other educational reform movements; in this case, we first need to catch up with 42 other states that are proving to be torchbearers on this ever-so-important issue of early childhood education.