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Preschool for all essential for economy, advocate says

– As state lawmakers debated the future of Gov. Mike Pence’s preschool bill Wednesday, local leaders gathered to discuss the importance of early childhood learning.

More than 140 business, education and community leaders attended the Early Childhood Learning Summit in Fort Wayne.

The summit included a live webcast with Robert Dugger, founder of ReadyNation, a business partnership that focuses on the link between early childhood education and economic success.

About 500 attended Dugger’s presentation in Indianapolis, and 10 Hoosier cities, including Fort Wayne, hosted forums to listen to his message about how early childhood education is imperative to raising responsible, ready-to-work adults.

Hours after the forum, the Senate Education Committee decided to move the issue of funding preschool programs to a study committee.

The bill would have created the framework of a state-funded preschool pilot program for low-income 4-year-olds in five counties.

About 75 percent of students ages 18 to 24 who enroll in the armed forces are not accepted because they don’t have a high school degree and have health problems, criminal backgrounds, or drug and alcohol addictions, Dugger said during his presentation.

Eliminating those barriers means graduating work-ready adults, and those lessons begin as early as a year old, he said.

“Quality is critical. We need to graduate as many ready-for-life 18-year-olds as possible, and the starting point of that is delivering ready-for-school 5-year-olds,” Dugger said.

Dugger cited a 1962 early childhood experiment where low-income students attended an expensive, high-quality preschool in Michigan.

The study followed the students for 40 years and found that students who attended the preschool program were less likely to be held back a grade level or need special education and were more likely to graduate, get jobs and become productive members of society than students who didn’t attend the program, Dugger said.

The crime rate among students who attended the preschool was 50 percent less than students who did not attend the program, he added.

While the program was costly, the students who completed preschool were far more likely to succeed than their counterparts who did not attend the program, Dugger said.

Work lies ahead

Indiana is one of only 10 states that doesn’t directly fund pre-kindergarten education.

Lawmakers’ decision to move the issue to a summer study committee didn’t completely quash the program – it could come up again next year as the legislature crafts a new two-year state budget.

Dugger said if Indiana moves forward with a preschool funding plan, it should be available to students in public, private and religious schools.

As many as 25,000 Indiana 4-year-olds do not have access to high-quality preschools, according to state data.

“I want a society in which my grandsons are working with the most talented people in the world, not burdened by a lot of people who can’t compete effectively,” Dugger said. “For me, it makes economic sense for all kids to have the best and high-quality early care and education; … it should be available to all.”

Last year, state officials applied for a federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant but missed out on the chance to secure $43 million that would have helped launch a statewide preschool initiative, said John Peirce, early childhood consultant to United Way of Allen County and the Big Goal Collaborative, who helped host Wednesday’s forum.

“It was rejected,” Peirce said. “Every state around us has earned a grant like that for tens of millions of dollars; … the feedback that we got was we don’t have the infrastructure in place in the state of Indiana to assess whether kids are ready for kindergarten when they get there.”

Peirce said he hopes the business partners and community members who heard Dugger’s presentation will stay engaged in the conversation about preschool.

“We need to be having these conversations where we talk about what we need and can start doing to create the infrastructure and programs,” Peirce said after the forum.

Jenna Ott, program officer for the Kendallville-based Dekko Foundation, said she was pleased with the turnout Wednesday and the discussion about the importance of early education.

The Dekko Foundation provides funding for good child development with the belief that early childhood investments create economic freedom.

“We want to create these regional partnerships because we think we have a little experience to share,” Ott said. “There’s such an important development process that happens socially and emotionally (at the preschool age), and we need to come up with a good way to measure that.”