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Preschoolers deserving of a better bill

A long-overdue bill to establish Indiana’s first state-funded preschool program was stripped and sent to a study committee last week.

That’s precisely the fate it deserved. House Bill 1004 wasn’t an early-learning bill – it was a voucher-expansion bill, cleverly designed to benefit church-based schools already collecting millions in tax dollars. It deserved to be shelved until lawmakers can agree on a bill that serves children from poverty, sets the highest quality standards and is designed to give them an advantage when they start kindergarten.

“The whole effort is to try to put this thing in a position where we can have a product worthy of our consideration if it should be funded,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville. “It’s a step forward. It does advance the cause.”

While Kenley’s cause genuinely appears to be a quality preschool program, the original bill made no such pretenses. The best clue was that it gave oversight not to the Indiana Department of Education but to the Family and Social Services Administration. FSSA’s record in overseeing taxpayer-supported child care programs is abysmal – 22 children have died in Indiana child-care settings since 2009, including a toddler who drowned in a baptismal font at a church day care. To suggest the same agency is prepared to oversee a quality early-learning program, aligned with the state’s K-12 schools, is foolish.

The more likely reason for its agency assignment is that its sponsor did not want to place preschool under the jurisdiction of Democratic State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a long-time advocate for quality preschool programs. It also created another way to expand a family’s eligibility for K-12 vouchers.

Early-learning advocates were disappointed in the bill’s fate, and for good reason. They’ve tirelessly pushed Indiana to join the 40 other states investing in preschool. In the same let’s-play-nicely-together spirit they teach their young charges, advocates were willing to settle for a flawed bill. The program they hoped to improve on, however, was designed to encourage church-based programs. And, once established, they could easily be exempted from most requirements, as voucher supporters have attempted to do at the K-12 level.

Anyone who accepts tax dollars must meet high standards and focus those dollars on children most in need. Public dollars are too scarce to spend on programs that look more like babysitting than education. They must not support programs that put children in danger.

The summer study committee’s assignment is not tough. Reams of research show what the most effective preschool program requires:

•Target children at risk of failure in school and require schools to serve all students, including those with disabilities and English language learners.

•Hire teachers and aides with degree-level credentials in early learning.

•Pay teacher salaries and benefits comparable to K-12 educators.

•Set valid measures of quality based on research in brain development, with focus on early literacy, math, science and social-emotional learning.

•Require parent involvement and continuous training and quality improvement for all teachers.

•Coordinate efforts with Head Start, existing high-quality programs and K-12 schools to provide a seamless system of early learning.

There are templates for outstanding preschool programs in most other states and even in Indiana. Fort Wayne Community Schools has one, paid for with federal money. Lawmakers should return in 2015 with an authentic early-learning program, not a voucher-expansion bill.