Education for preschool children is proven to be useful, especially because it sets them up for early success and a smooth transition into kindergarten. 

However, studies are showing that these programs can benefit a child’s family and can ripple out into almost every part of a community, as well.

Natalie Brake, director of statewide outreach at Early Learning Indiana, told a group of educators, civic leaders and business professionals Thursday that pre-kindergarten programs can allow parents to get back out into the workforce or go back to school without the burden of paying for private child care, which, for many, is out of reach because of the cost.

“The average cost of high-quality child care in Indiana is almost $8,000 a year for one child. That’s especially cost-prohibitive because most families who have small children are really at the beginning of their financial lifetime,” Brake said. “This is a higher cost than some higher education.”

In Jefferson County, that average is a bit lower – $6,011 a year per child up to 5 years old, or about $500 a month. 

In 2016, the Indiana Department of Education invested $10 million into a pilot program that instituted the On My Way Pre-K program in five counties. This year, the state increased the program to include an additional 15 counties with a $22 million investment. Most of the counties will begin their program in January for a half year, while the others will implement the program for the 2018-19 school year, according to a report by the Family and Social Services Administratrion. 

Though findings from the fledgling program implemented by the first five counties are preliminary, there is evidence that children enrolled in the program from fall to spring gained skills needed for kindergarten readiness at a higher rate than their peers who were not in the program. Those skills included language comprehension, early literacy and a reduction of behavioral problems in the classroom, as well as improved cognitive functions, such as impulse control and memory, according to the FSSA report.

Brake said one of the goals of increasing access to pre-kindergarten is to reduce the rate of retention for kindergarteners statewide.

In Indiana in 2016, 90 percent of eligible children were enrolled in kindergarten programs. Of those, 5 percent were retained at a cost of $24.4 million to the state. In Jefferson County, the numbers were slightly better – 95 percent enrollment and 4 percent retention; the cost to taxpayers: $81,381. 

“We’re paying that cost financially, and we’re paying that cost with our children,” Brake said.

Investing in early education can help a community save money in the long run. But it doesn’t stop there, she said, and showed a video of a recent talk given to educators in the state by Tim Bartick, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Bartick also is the author of “Investing in Kids: Early Childhood Programs and Local Economic Development.” 

Bartick said that for every dollar invested in early learning programs, the rate of return is from $5 to $9 in increased income for parents who are able to get back into the workforce without the burden of childcare costs.

Test scores are higher for children who attend pre-kindergarten programs, particularly in areas where there is a strong K-12 school system, he said. 

People often ask why they should invest their tax money into such programs to help “other people’s kids,” he said. First, with fewer behavioral issues in the classroom, teachers can spend more time with all the students instead of having to focus on those exhibiting bad behavior.

Second, pre-K programs reduce education costs, overall, and reduce prison rates and the number of people on welfare, he said.

“Economically, it spills over. You make more money, or you live somewhere where wages are higher across the board,” he explained. “The benefits are immediate and the benefits last.”

“What it really boils down to is that there are young people in our community that we know want to thrive, that we know what they need to be successful. We know the success of our young children is also success for their families and success for our communities,” said Tara McKay, director of the Early Development Center for Madison Consolidated Schools.

“This matters for our workforce development. I talk to employers who tell me ‘I can teach [new employees] how to run a machine. I can teach them how to run the cash register. But what I cannot teach them is teamwork, cooperation, how to walk away when a situation gets intense,’” she said. 

“They cannot teach nice. That’s what they tell us. They need employees who can get along and work with others, and that’s what preschool and early childhood development is about. That’s what we’re teaching.”

McKay said that she is hoping that Jefferson County will be included the next time the state expands the On My Way Pre-K program. 

To do that, she said, “we need an Early Learning Coalition supported by the community,” and she is hoping to get the discussion started. “This is not a Madison Consolidate Schools thing. We need Southwestern, Christian Academy of Madison, Canaan and Pope John (on board), as well as our home-based providers.”

The coalition will also require support from business and industry, Ivy Tech and any other groups involved in economic and workforce development, she said. While Head Start and voucher programs are available for families who make up to 127 percent of the federal poverty level, she believes the goal should be to address the needs of families whose income is above that amount up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Those families do not have access to governmental programs and often cannot afford child care.

“We have to come together as a community and get this done,” McKay said. “There are states that pay for universal preschool for all. Indiana is not one of them. We hope that they will be, and that’s why we’ve got all these organizations like Early Learning Indiana.

“We want to be one of those counties” in the On My Way Pre-K program, said. “It’s going to take all of us, and it’s going to impact all of us. ... I would like to see everybody who thinks they could be a key player in our coalition to come forward.”

Anyone interested can contact McKay at the preschool, (812) 273-8528 or Molly Dodge at The Clearinghouse, (812) 265-2652.