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Dane Hawley | Special to The Journal Gazette
Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz discusses the state’s early-education efforts during a visit last week at Ivy Tech-Northeast.

Taking baby steps: Politics prevent bigger investment in preschool

With a token investment in its youngest residents, Indiana can finally join the 40 states that recognize the invaluable connection between early learning and school success. The state’s timid foray into preschool could, however, deliver a better return on investment if politics weren’t standing in the way of a first-rate early learning program.

The meager pilot program approved by the General Assembly this year falls under control of the Family and Social Services Administration. It answers to Gov. Mike Pence, not the Indiana Department of Education, administered by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. The distinction might seem small, but the investment of tax dollars demands that best practices determine how the money is spent. States supporting effective preschool programs understand that requiring research-based standards in early learning yields the best return in school success.

For now, Indiana remains among just 10 states – most of them rural western states – without state-funded preschool, according to the “State of Preschool 2013,” a survey by the National Institute for Early Education Research released last week. Only 15 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds and 10 percent of its 3-year-olds were enrolled in a federally funded Head Start or school-based preschool program. Unless their parents paid tuition or their local school district picked up the cost, the rest of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds were out of luck.

Contrast those numbers to Georgia, where 58 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool and another 8 percent were in Head Start or a federally funded special education preschool. Oklahoma, the pioneer in state-funded preschool, had 74 percent of its 4-year-olds enrolled in programs last year, with an investment of about $145 million.

Indiana’s dismal record in supporting early learning has inevitably hampered its performance in K-12 education and in higher education attainment. Much research shows that children who start at a disadvantage are more likely to fall behind their classmates and drop out of school.

In spite of Indiana’s history of lackluster efforts in building a birth to third-grade learning continuum, some work is under way. Ritz met last week with dozens of early education professionals at Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast, where the Indiana Department of Education was host to one of a series of statewide early-learning summits. Ritz said the meetings are designed to gather input in building an early-learning infrastructure in Indiana, given that its request for federal Race To the Top early-learning funds was rejected because no such system exists.

“The pilot preschool program is really about putting an emphasis on just 1,000 children,” she said. “What the (Department of Education) is interested in is getting an entire infrastructure system in place statewide, so that all children have a quality preschool program available, no matter where they live.”

For Becky Saddlemire, one of the participants in last week’s conference, the state could begin to show its commitment to early learning by requiring students to attend kindergarten. School enrollment isn’t mandatory until a child reaches age 7.

“We just can’t believe the expectations and the standards that are now in place for kindergarten, and enrollment isn’t even mandatory. The idea that you can come to first grade with all of that information makes no sense,” said Saddlemire, principal of North Miami Elementary School in Denver, Indiana. Her district offers preschool to all children, but she said her school could do more if the state financially supported early learning.

Indiana might lose its dubious distinction of offering no state-funded preschool in 2014. But it won’t see real results until it puts politics aside to build a first-rate early learning system.