Goshen News, Goshen, IN

September 14, 2013

State Senate Democrats: Time to fund pre-K, lower school age

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
THE GOSHEN NEWS

— INDIANAPOLIS – The head the state Senate Democratic caucus is calling for a “positive discussion” on a proposal he backs to drop the mandatory school age in Indiana from age 7 to age 5 and to provide millions of dollars to provide pre-kindergarten education in every school district in the state.

Neither idea is new, but Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said it’s time to focus on moving the conversation about education reform forward and for that to include dramatically expanding early childhood education opportunities for all Hoosier children.

“The payoff is clear,” Lanane said. “High-quality pre-K programs produce students who are more likely to graduate from high school, earn a higher income, own a home, and less likely to require remediation or commit crimes.”

Lanane called a press conference to announce initiative, saying it came after weeks of “controversial if not downright negative news about education.” Over the past few months,  education news in Indiana has been focused on a series of failures and scandals, ranging from the long-delayed release of results of the ISTEP standardized test to allegations that the state’s former schools chief unfairly manipulated the A-F school rating system.

Lanane said it was time to have a “good, old-fashioned legislative debate” on the state’s role in educating some of its youngest citizens.

The cost of providing pre-kindergarten education to every 3- and 4-year-old in the state could reach $200 million a year – about the same the state currently spends on kindergarten. The Indiana General Assembly has already passed a budget for the next two years, which means any additional funding requests likely wouldn’t be considered until the next budget session in 2015.

But Lanane said the legislature could take up the debate in 2014, which is a short legislative session that must end by March 14. “We find these ideas take a while,” he said. “We think the short session would be an ideal time to have a good hard discussion about it. And we believe to even make a commitment, but if nothing else to get the discussion going.”

Indiana is one of 11 states that doesn’t provide public money for pre-school.

In this past legislative session, House Republicans supported a two-year, $7 million pilot project that would have provided pre-kindergarten education for 1,000 children from low-income families. The funding was reduced to $4 million in the final budget.

Part of the initiative that Lanane supports includes lowering Indiana’s mandatory school age to 5 years old. That may drive more children into kindergarten, which currently isn’t mandatory in Indiana.  

In late August, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a measure that lowers Illinois’ mandatory school attendance age to 6 from 7 starting in the fall of 2014. The law was prompted in part by a Chicago Tribune investigation last fall that nearly 18 percent of the city’s kindergartners and first-graders were classified as “chronic truants.” The missed school days were most common among African-American youths and children with disabilities.

In late August, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a measure that lowers Illinois’ mandatory school attendance age to 6 from 7 starting in the fall of 2014. The law was prompted in part by an investigation last fall that found nearly 18 percent of Chicago kindergartners and first-graders were classified as “chronic truants.” The missed school days were most common to African-American youths and children with disabilities.

Illinois school officials supported the measure but warned it would be difficult to enforce.

Indiana is one of 14 states where the minimum school age is set at 7. Two states require school attendance at age 8. The mandatory school age is 6 in 26 states, and age 5 in eight states and the District of Columbia.

In Indiana, past proposals to dropping the mandatory school age have been defeated by opponents who said the measure would infringe on parental rights and swell the costs of education.

Lanane said the investment the state would make in paying for pre-kindergarten education and spending more dollars on kindergarten as more 5 and 6 students enroll would pay off down the road.