March 8, 2013

Early childhood programs to assist low-income families advance

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Indiana lawmakers passed a pilot program initiative to grant 1,000 low-income children access to a high quality prekindergarten education. The proposal, House Bill 1004, passed the Indiana House of Representatives by a 93-6 vote, and is expected to also pass the Senate by the end of April. The Church supports the measure.

The bill, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis; Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville; and Rep. Shelli Vandenburgh, D-Crown Point, initiates a preschool pilot program for 1,000 students in five counties across Indiana. The plan targets low-income children who would receive a voucher to attend a state approved, high quality preschool program.

“We have done a lot in moving education and education reform forward. The greatest need where we have not done a lot is the area of early childhood education,” Behning said. “There is no question. Indiana is behind the rest of the nation in providing early childhood education, especially to children of poverty.”

Under the bill, eligible students would come from families who are at 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is $43,567 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

According to Behning, the state budget is allocating $7 million for the pilot program. Students selected for the pilot program would receive $6,800 to attend a high quality preschool program.

Behing said it is also the intent of the state to maximize federal Title I and Head Start money prior to using the state money to pilot the program. House Bill 1004 also creates an early childhood advisory panel to track data and create accountability.

Crouch said she was approached by business and community leaders in her area who told her the state needed to get more involved in early childhood education.

“This is an initiative that business and community leaders have taken the lead on,” she said. “This is about the future of our business development, future economic development and the future of our children.”

Vandenburgh said, “I’m glad to see we have a starting point for early learners. We’ve been talking about this for several years. I’m very supportive of the plan.”

Leaders from the business community around Indiana spoke in favor of the legislation. Mark Gerstle, vice president of community relations for the Columbus-based Cummins Inc., said the research that their company had conducted showed that 67 percent of kindergarteners in southwestern Indiana did not pass the kindergarten readiness test.

Gerstle told lawmakers that Cummins piloted a three-year program on early childhood education and their data showed a “total correlation” between kindergarten readiness and graduation.

“Our goal is 100 percent graduation rates for high school, and like 60 percent [of those students] going on to a two- or four-year college. For us, it is a business prerogative because we are trying to hire people,” he said. “Cummins, like [Eli] Lilly and others, have put a lot of money into this.”

Gerstle said that the findings of the pilot showed that 100 percent of the kids who received early childhood education were ready for kindergarten.

Connie Bond Stuart, regional vice president of PNC Bank in Indianapolis, also testified in support of the bill. She noted that PNC Bank has committed $350 million over multiple years to assist in early childhood initiatives.

Highlighting the significant body of research showing positive results, Stuart said that every dollar invested in early childhood education renders a savings of $16 in later remediation.

“Every child deserves a chance to be prepared to learn and ultimately be successful with a productive life,” she said.

Mike O’Connor, state director of government affairs for the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., who also spoke in favor of the plan, said, “We can’t get to where we need to be without statewide early learning initiatives.”

O’Connor said there wasn’t a silver bullet in terms of producing a quality workforce, but if they were reaching children in those first developmental years it would be the closest thing to it.

“Looking at early childhood development as a business value proposition, investment in early learning nets immediate and long lasting results,” he said.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of Indiana Catholic Conference, said, “The program outlined in House Bill 1004 will provide needed assistance to families who may experience more obstacles and whose children are often without sufficient opportunities that benefit their social and cognitive development.

“Public policy should maximize the quality of educational opportunities for all children by ensuring that all parents have access to and the financial capability to exercise the right to choose the school they believe is best for their children.”
 

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org. )

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