Behning: Pre-K pilot programs should focus on at-risk children first

Posted by: Samantha Holifield  | Thursday, February 2, 2017 10:04 am

Research shows that children living in low-income households come to school up to 18 months developmentally behind their peers. A high-quality early education program is one of the most effective ways to close the achievement gap that low-income, at-risk children often experience when they enter kindergarten.

The Indiana General Assembly established a five county pre-K pilot program in 2014 to close this gap. This program currently serves Allen, Jackson, Marion, Lake and Vanderburgh counties and provides high-quality pre-K to approximately 2,300 low-income preschool-aged children.

This session, I authored legislation to responsibly expand the On My Way Pre-K pilot program. The five-year program has done well in its first two years, and students have shown significant gains from these high-quality pre-K opportunities. It is my goal to expand the program to include up to five more counties, nearly doubling the number of children served. Bringing the program to new counties allows for more geographic diversity and will help the program reach more rural and urban communities. Additionally, this legislation will revise the eligibility requirement from 127 percent of the federal poverty level to 150 percent of the federal free or reduced lunch program.

Expanding the pre-K pilot program should be viewed as a long-term investment in young Hoosiers. Children who attend high-quality preschool are more likely to graduate high school, have higher wage-earning potential, are less likely to need remediation in the future and are less likely to be incarcerated.

Although there are many reasons to expand Indiana’s support for high-quality early childhood education, we must do so responsibly. Right now, Indiana is not ready to provide universal, statewide pre-K. Currently, the state lacks adequate capacity and trained personnel, particularly in more rural areas. My legislation helps address this shortfall by providing capacity-building grants to eligible, high-quality providers.

Additionally, a universal pre-K program for children from ages three through five is beyond the state’s current resources. It would cost the state over $2 billion annually, which is equivalent to almost a quarter of the current state budget dedicated to the entirety of K-12 education. For now, we should remain focused on making targeted investments in the children that are in the most need and most likely to benefit from a high-quality pre-K program.

While Indiana has not enacted a statewide pre-K program, there are still many pre-K options available across the state to help give children a jumpstart on their education. I encourage all parents to consider using the state’s Paths to QUALITY childcare quality rating system to select a high-quality program near them. 

Visit iga.in.gov to follow House Bill 1004 through the legislative process. 

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State Rep. Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis) represents portions of Hendricks and Marion counties

Behning serves as the chair of the House Committee on Education.

A high-resolution photo of Behning can be downloaded by clicking here