Why Indiana ranks second to last in the nation for access to its pre-K program

Indiana ranks second to last in the nation for access to state-funded prekindergarten among states that offer it, according to a new national “State of Preschool” report released Wednesday.

In 2017, the state served just 2 percent of 4-year-olds — or 1,792 students — through its prekindergarten voucher program for low-income families, called On My Way Pre-K. That put Indiana behind all but one of the 44 states that offer state-funded preschool, according to the annual report conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

State leaders noted the state’s recent expansion of pre-K wasn’t reflected in the report. Last year, the Indiana legislature agreed to increase funding for On My Way Pre-K to $22 million, to extend the program into 20 counties and double the enrollment of poor 4-year-olds in the upcoming 2018-19 school year.

“We’re disappointed that the organization missed an opportunity to recognize Indiana for our commitment to doubling the state’s investment in pre-K,” said Marni Lemons, spokeswoman for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

But the expansion is still unlikely to catch Indiana up with the rest of the nation. On average, the report said, preschool programs across the country serve about one-third of states’ 4-year-olds.

“Indiana shows promise with increased funding and 15 additional pilot counties in 2017-18, but it also has far to go,” NIEER Senior Co-Director Steven Barnett said in a written statement. “Indiana should move beyond a pilot program to enable more children to access high-quality early learning experiences.”

Still, the $10 million spent on pre-K prior to the expansion put Indiana in the top 15 for per-student state funding.

On My Way Pre-K was also recognized in the report for requiring providers to prepare students for kindergarten through a planned curriculum, and for analyzing the quality of classrooms and student growth each year and over a five-year study.

But Indiana was rated low in the report for meeting other quality standards — a sharp contrast to the state’s touting of deliberately growing its pre-K program with a focus on access to high-quality providers.

And the report noted that Indiana doesn’t vet pre-K curriculum or require pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree.

Indiana was rated similarly low in this report last year, which was the first time On My Way Pre-K was fully assessed in the report. The state approved the limited pre-K pilot program in 2014, specifically targeting 4-year-olds from low-income families and allowing families to choose from eligible pre-K providers. Initial results of studies by the state, though, show participants are making significant gains.

Across the country, the report found that states are investing less per student, even as they’re serving more children in preschool programs. It highlighted concerns over the quality of programs and whether states do enough for young children who are English-language learners.