March 5, 2014

KITCHELL: Indiana getting a late start on Head Start


---- — First, we should applaud Indiana lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence for at least broaching the issue of pre-school education and using state money to pay for it.

Generations of Indiana government officials from both parties have ignored this issue for too long, and at least they are willing to start the discussion over what we can do to help at-risk kids succeed in school.

The Indiana General Assembly however will not provide funding this year. Gov. Pence has indicated it should be time to at least provide “voucher scholarships” for children who really need pre-school education.

What’s sad about this story is that what Indiana is scratching the surface of doing is what the majority of other states hae done for many years. In fact, 40 states already provide some funding for pre-school education. This isn’t fundin for parents who need baby-sitters. It’s funding for at-risk children who will start school most likely behind their peers and struggle from the outset.

The federal government identified this problem in the 1960s. It produced a program known as Head Start which has been used in Cass, Pulaski, White and other Indiana counties to provide support for children.

So why is this so important? There are several reasons, but two that are critical are that pre-school years are when critical development occurs in a child’s brain — their behavior, their reasoning and their ability to learn are all related to what their pre-school world is like. Perhaps most importantly, research finds that children learn to read until the third grade, but after third grade, they read to learn. Unfortunately, children who don’t learn to read by the third grade don’t always get the help they need, and some never catch up. Is it their fault? Not really. But it’s their fate unless we do more to provide for this group of children.

A pilot progrma for pre-school vouchers is probably not the answer, though well-intended. Expanding Head Start, which was specifically designed for at-risk chlldren, is one answer that has proven to work. The urgency for using it is at hand because the poverty rate the nation faces now is worse than what it was in 1965 when the program began.

Lessons have been learned from Head Start since then and the national organization can support Indiana officials in creating programs specifically targeted for at-risk children. What’s more, there is federal funding available for Head Start programs that would defray the costs to Indiana taxpayers. If state and federal funding can be leveraged to provide greater opportunities for pre-school education for at-risk childrne, we all win. At-risk children have a better chance of succeeding. Taxpayers pay less for providing the program. Education budgets will most likely be saved millions in remediation costs, including mandatory summer school and retention.

Let’s not just serve a 1,000 children with a pilot program. Why not save every child who’s at-risk and get them off to the best start they can possibly have in elementary school by giving them a Head Start that millions of other American children like them already have.

One of the virtues we’ve heard about in this country for several years now is “leaving no child behind”. If we fail to act again to promote pre-school education through programs such as Head Start, we’re intentionally leaving the children who need help the most behind the rest of the population. We’re making it harder for them to succeed in school, to graduate, to get a job and to become self-sufficient citizens who are going to raise their own children some day.

The discussion has started, but the deliberation continues. Gov. Pence’s wife is a teacher, and if our first lady takes the lead on any issue in this state, let’s hope it’s this one.

If we can’t invest in our children, we won’t invest in our future or theirs. We all see at-risk children in our neighborhoods, stores and school events. It’s time for us all to look at them and say, “There but for the grace of God go I” and help them, if only in this way.

The time has come to jump start education by expanding Head Start in Indiana.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at