Indiana lawmakers are moving ahead with a proposal that would spend several million dollars over the next two years expanding preschool. But $2 million of that wouldn’t be spent on classrooms, teacher salaries or picture books.
Instead, it would give parents access to software that claims to get kids ready for kindergarten in “just 15 minutes a day.”
The unusual proposal — which might not survive the contentious budget-writing process — is part of an ongoing debate about how to expand education for Indiana’s youngest students. Indiana already grants low-income families vouchers to use at preschools in five counties, including Marion County. But that program serves fewer than 1,600 kids, and demand far exceeds supply.
To help, Senate lawmakers are discussing how to add funding for both traditional preschool and an online program. But educators and preschool advocates say they aren’t convinced that any software will meet the needs of the poor children that Indiana says need preschool most.
“I can see how a good online program, guided by family in the home, can supplement high-quality pre-K, but it certainly is not a substitute,” said Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana, a non-profit child care provider and advocacy organization. “A skilled preschool teacher would design activities that encourage children to work together, learn how to be part of a classroom community.”
Upstart, a software program developed by the Utah Department of Education and the nonprofit Waterford, is at the center of the proposal. The program’s website claims that Upstart “prepares children for kindergarten in just 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.”
Parents and children work for a year with the software, which adapts its instruction based on a child’s progress. The focus is on literacy: letters, vocabulary, basic grammar and sounding out words. Upstart also provides people to check in with the family if they have questions or if attendance falls below a certain level.
Utah, South Carolina, and Floyd County in southeastern Indiana already make the software available. Idaho is also considering the program.
According to Utah’s report from 2016, when a little more than 5,000 kids used Upstart, those kids made gains on literacy tests over peers who didn’t use the program. But the children participating were overwhelmingly white, native English-speakers from educated, two-parent households. Half of the Utah families studied made more than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, which is $48,500 per year for a family of four.
That raises questions about whether its effectiveness will translate to other environments, Maple said, though Upstart says its program has proved effective with a wide range of students. To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four can’t earn more than $30,861 annually, and the state has made poor children its top priority as it began subsidizing early education in recent years.
But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, said the $2 million investment in “in-home education” would allow Indiana to reach 1,000 more students, potentially in rural areas where preschool options are more limited.
Across the state, just 36 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool at all. And nine Indiana counties do not have a preschool provider that is deemed “high quality,” so residents couldn’t participate in the state voucher program even if it was expanded.
Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, noted that the online option would also come at a lower cost. If families already have access to computers, the program would cost the state $1,000 per year, or $2,000 if a computer needed to be provided. That’s far less than the $6,800 full-day and $2,500 half-day preschool grants that the state’s current program typically doles out.
But Holdman also said that the online program doesn’t align with Indiana’s specifications for safety and academics for high-quality preschools.
During an impassioned debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, voiced extreme skepticism about the online program given research showing the benefits of preschool.
“We’re funding (preschool) at a $4 million increase,” Stoops said. “But then we’re taking $1 million of that and we’re applying that to a really untested, kind of strange, virtual homeschool program.”
Kenley, just as strongly, disagreed.
“Your argument that we have studied this to death and we know with absolute certainty that this is the silver bullet that solves all of our problems,” he said. “I don’t think is a foregone conclusion.”
The Senate’s proposal also comes as schools across the country continue to struggle with online education. Kenley himself acknowledged there were issues with virtual schools when he presented his budget plan late last month, which limited funding for virtual schools serving older students compared to the House’s plan.
Today, the Indiana Senate passed its version of the two-year budget, which will head to conference committee for more debate. If the online preschool plan makes it into a final bill, it’s unclear if it will be opposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has said he is “open-minded” about the online education option. But he wants to make sure that the state is investing money in traditional options as well, he said.
“This is a worthy discussion that the Senate has put forward, the in-home option,” Holcomb said. “We need to be increasing the quality facilities that we have throughout the state.”