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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Early Childhood Learning a Top Priority

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber on Wednesday, November 30, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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In Indiana, a recent focus on building the necessary infrastructure and creating the right business climate has positioned the state to be a leader in job creation in the Midwest and across the country.

But business and policy leaders recognize that without the people to fill important positions in the employment pipeline, the state won’t reach its full potential. And they know that developing people begins with getting kids off to the right start with quality prekindergarten programs.

I was lucky. When I was very young, I was blessed with some outstanding learning opportunities at home, at my church, at the YMCA, and at my elementary school prior to entering kindergarten. I began school with a good educational foundation and a strong support network at home. That helped me excel in elementary, junior high, high school and college.

Those experiences prepared me well for the workplace and helped me succeed in the various jobs I’ve held through the years. Many of you likely have a similar experience. Unfortunately, these days many people do not. Many lack the opportunities prior to kindergarten to build that necessary foundation and spend a lifetime trying to play catch-up.

Today, Indiana is one of only eight states without a publicly funded pre-K program. Only 36 percent of Indiana’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs, compared with 46 percent nationally. And Hoosier families currently spend a higher share of their incomes on early childhood care and education than do families in other states, about $7,500 annually.

The need is great. For example, just 31 percent of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds attend public or private preschool/prekindergarten programs, as compared with 41 percent of their peers from higher-income families. Indiana’s share of children from low-income families is substantially higher than the national average — 62 percent of children ages zero to 5 are from low-income families, compared with a national average of 47 percent.

State leaders have taken the first steps to implement a statewide pre-K program. In 2014, Indiana lawmakers created a voluntary Early Education Pilot Program that offers prekindergarten in five counties. Elkhart and St. Joseph counties were passed over for that pilot. The pilot currently serves only 1,585 children, but the effort signifies a significant step toward developing a permanent state-funded pre-K program.

A statewide program will likely contain three priorities: creating or expanding existing highly rated child care programs, recruiting and retaining a well-trained preschool workforce, and funding infrastructure changes where needed.

But legislative leaders are advocating a go-slow approach to expanding the state-funded preschool program and warn there might be little money to boost school spending in the next state budget. Widespread rollout could carry a big price tag. Currently 65 out of 92 counties in Indiana have no state preschool investment.

Data from recent studies suggest that Hoosier families are unable to access, afford or realize the benefits associated with high-quality programs without an expanded state role in funding and regulation. It will be one of the most important debates in the 2017 legislative session.

Business leaders will have an opportunity to learn more at a “Success Starts Early” breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 9, at WNIT Television, 300 Jefferson Blvd., South Bend. There, leaders will learn more about how making a commitment to high-quality pre-K programs can yield a high return on investment and contribute to a stronger economy.

Representatives from Early Learning Indiana and local leaders will share information and answer questions regarding what is slated to be a hot topic in the next legislative session. Interested parties can register at www.sjchamber.org. For more information on pre-K programs in Indiana, visit www.earlylearningin.org.