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Republicans last week released the legislative agenda they'll pursue should they retain control of the Indiana House — which is almost a certainty — and among their priorities is promoting preschool. If recent studies are to be believed, it's a worthy goal. And it's certainly a trendy one as well.
Both major party candidates for governor have said they support pre-kindergarten programs and Democratic lawmakers have advocated them for years. President Barack Obama has called on states to do more to ensure that younger children attend preschool, as have a number of education foundations.
So it's probably no surprise that House Republicans and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Mike Pence have now endorsed preschool programs too.
What's not clear is whether Republicans will support publicly funded preschool. It might seem so at first glance. But read this quote from House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis:
"Our pledge is to honestly look at it and to promote it," Bosma said of pre-kindergarten programs.
"There are a lot of different ideas ... ideas as far afield as saying the state needs to be in the regulation business to the state needs to be in the business of promoting a scholarship program or a voucher program for low-income families," he said. "We're going to be open to discussion on all of these issues."
When pressed, Bosma said the caucus will ensure that all its ideas are "sustainable" but he didn't say whether funding for preschool programs would meet that criteria.
Pence, meanwhile, says he would "support quality, community pre-K initiatives and examine opportunities to increase access to pre-K for underprivileged children." But when questioned earlier this year, his campaign staff didn't clarify what "support" means. Would it be financial support? Moral support?
The answer is important.
Currently, Indiana has the seventh lowest percentage of children attending early education programs. And Indiana is one of just 11 states without a state pre-kindergarten program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Those states with the highest percentage of children attending pre-school are generally the ones that provide the most state funding support for the programs.
In Indiana, Democrats are proposing now – and have proposed in the past – state funding for pre-kindergarten programs. "House Democrats have attempted to pass early childhood proposals in the past three budget cycles, only to meet with resistance from our colleagues across the aisle," House Minority Leader Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, said this week.
And Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Gregg has offered a much more specific proposal – a state-funded pilot preschool program that would be operated in partnership with elementary schools, child care facilities, and Head Start programs. His idea is modeled after a program in Wisconsin, which has one of the nation's highest rates of preschool attendance.
To be fair, though, Gregg's plan to fund the program is a bit iffy. It's one of the many things he wants to do with the millions of dollars he's convinced he'll find by performing "audits" on state agencies.
But at least Gregg is telling voters what he wants to do about early childhood education.
Pence and House Republicans have been far less forthright. They "support" pre-kindergarten programs but whether they'll back that up with money remains unclear. That makes it hard for voters to know whether preschool is truly a priority or just a good talking point.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.
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