TERRE HAUTE — Indiana pays dearly for its reluctance to invest in its youngest residents.
State officials can improve life for all Hoosiers by making child-related issues their top priority. Indiana legislators got their chance beginning Tuesday, when the General Assembly convened in Indianapolis. The importance of other topics pale in comparison, and they should resist ideological diversions.
Gov. Mike Pence wants a voucher program for low-income kids to attend pre-school, and the Legislature should make it happen in the upcoming session. Its adoption should also include a firm timeline to implement the next crucial step in early childhood education — a pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in Indiana. It’s also time for Indiana to lower its mandatory age for school attendance from 7 to 5, and abandon the optional status of kindergarten.
At the same time, Pence needs to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to help hundreds of thousands of uninsured Hoosiers get proper health care and, thus, address another child-related problem in Indiana — our tragically high infant mortality rate. Likewise, the Legislature should support initiatives to reduce the state’s high rate of smoking by pregnant women.
Statistics indicate a lack of public attention to these situations. Indiana has never lowered its mandatory school attendance age from 7, one of the latest in America. Indiana is one of just 10 states that do not allocate public funds for pre-kindergarten programs. Indiana has the nation’s sixth-highest infant mortality rate at 7.7 deaths before age 1 per 1,000 live births. The primary cause, health officials say, is smoking by the pregnant mothers, and Hoosiers rank among America’s heaviest smokers.
Kids feel the consequences in each situation. The state weakens itself by allowing the ill effects to recur.
In the case of early childhood education, multiple studies indicate a rate of return at $7 for every dollar invested. Kids need less special education, remedial courses and grade repetition. Pence is pushing for limited pre-kindergarten state funding, aimed at 30,639 low-income, “at-risk” Hoosier 4-year-olds who aren’t already in Head Start or other federal programs, according to an Indiana University study cited in the Northwest Indiana Times. The estimated annual cost would be $149 million. A universal program, which Pence is not endorsing, would carry a pricetag of up to $350 million a year. Leaders of the Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature are skeptical of committing to any pre-kindergarten plan, limited or full, because of its cost.