LOGANSPORT – First, we should applaud Indiana lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence for 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 already have done for many years. In fact, 40 states already provide some funding for preschool education. This isn’t funding for parents who need babysitters. It’s funding for at-risk children who will start school behind their peers and struggle from the outset, unless the government provides for them what their parents cannot or will not.
    
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? The 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, those 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 program for preschool vouchers is probably not the answer, though well-intended. In fact, it’s like expecting a child’s chemistry set to do what a national laboratory does. We wouldn’t underfund research that’s vital to national interests, but we are underfunding the area that could produce future researchers, right here in Indiana. 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 in 1965 when the program began. The nation’s population is much larger than in 1965, which means there are more children at risk when they enter school. In fact, we’re multiplying the at-risk child population because of the kind of child neglect that the Department of Family and Children doesn’t enforce, neglecting a child’s cognitive development.
    
Lessons have been learned from Head Start, 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 preschool education for at-risk children, 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 1,000 children with a pilot program. Why not save all children 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 already have. Yes, there are those who say Head Start doesn’t save every child, but shouldn’t we try? Shouldn’t Gov. Pence and Supt. Glenda Ritz be able to put their differences aside for this cause and let that be a new beginning for a collaborative, effective education policy for this state?
    
We’ve heard for several years now, “leave no child behind.” If we fail to act again to promote preschool education through programs such as Head Start, we’re intentionally leaving behind the children who need help the most. 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. It’s sort of like being the child who’s never chosen for a team to play kickball, or basketball, football or baseball. The people choosing up sides in education are choosing not to pick the kids who need it the most, and that kind of school funding bullying is starkly wrong.
    
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 Glenda Ritz and the State Board of Education agree on one issue, let’s make it this one. If we want to improve our college attainment rates, let’s start here, starting now.
    
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.

Kitchell is an educator and columnist based in Logansport.