Lawmakers gird up for battle over full-day kindergarten 

Full-day kindergarten is currently under consideration in both chambers of the state Legislature and supporters are girding up for battle on an issue whose fate is far from determined.

“We have to be able to show Hoosiers why $260 million makes sense,” said Sen. Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis, a former English teacher who wrote the bill that passed in the Senate by a 37-12 vote in February.

The House version was added into that chamber’s budget bill. Lawmakers from both chambers must work out the differences in the two versions before it can be approved.

“Kindergarten will be considered along with the entire budget,” said Lubbers, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “So we could win some votes and we could lose some votes. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to get this done.”

“I don’t know what people will do but I know it will be quite an entertaining debate,“ said state Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, chair of the House Education Committee, who will open committee hearings on the matter perhaps as early as this week. “We have to teach our colleagues that full-day kindergarten gets [children] ready for the first grade. It’s not glorified babysitting.”

Lubbers, Porter and Lawrence Township School Superintendent Michael Copper last week took part in a panel discussion on the merits of full-day kindergarten and outlined the stumbling blocks to its passage, including its cost and questions regarding its long-term benefits.

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Children’s Coalition of Indiana, Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Central Indiana, all of which support parents having the option of full-day kindergarten for their children.

“The chamber has publicly supported full-day kindergarten ... because it will have an economic impact in the future,” said Chamber of Commerce board member John Neighbours. “And it will have an impact in improved achievement, decreased discipline problems, higher attendance rates and higher graduation rates.”

While the state currently requires school districts to offer kindergarten programs, it does not require full-day programs and attendance is also not required. School attendance is not required until age 7. The current legislation calls for a three-year phase-in of full-day kindergarten in all public school districts and charter schools that offer kindergarten. But it would be optional for parents.

The governor has voiced strong support for full-day kindergarten. “I don’t want a pilot project. The time for that has passed,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said late last year.

Despite its supporters, the projected cost of the program could be its downfall. The Senate version would cost between $32 million to $50 million in the first year, $100 million in the second year and $186 million in the third. After that, full-day kindergarten would cost Indiana taxpayers about $260 million a year.

“It does have a hefty price tag,” Lubbers admitted, “but the return on investment is also substantial.”

“For every dollar invested in early childhood education you get a return of $3,” Porter added, citing research conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The lawmakers said the ongoing costs of full-day kindergarten would be part of each district’s school funding formula from the state. Though a full-day program would cost cash-strapped districts additional money, there are compelling reasons for having full-day kindergarten.

According to Superintendent Copper, “There is a significant amount of research that shows the more time you spend on task the greater the learning. The research shows gains in student achievement, increased performance on standardized tests and reduced grade retention.

“Would you consider having a half-day of the sixth grade or a half-day for [high school] freshmen?” he asked.

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