Indiana can’t afford another delay in preschool

(March 4, 2014)

The Indiana General Assembly had the opportunity this session to improve the lives of 1,000 toddlers. Sadly, lawmakers failed, and it is hard to understand why. House Bill 1004 proposed the creation of a pilot program for low-income children to access high-quality pre-kindergarten education. The state Senate has decided to send that proposal to committee for further study. You might be inclined to think that there is little information on the benefits of such a program. You would be wrong. A quick Google search reveals that studies across the country and locally have documented its many advantages.

Cognitive research teaches that the brain’s highest potential for new learning is during the early years of life. A toddler’s brain develops more than 100 trillion synapses during these years. If that crucial window of opportunity is missed, it will not open again.

A growing body of data from economics, biology, psychology and pedagogy demonstrates the importance of high-quality preschool education. Children who are enrolled in these programs attain higher scores in language acquisition, literacy and math. The benefits are manifest not only in kindergarten and elementary school, but also later in life. These students are more likely to graduate from high school and obtain college degrees.


Participation in good early childhood programs also increases the development of important social competencies necessary for long-term success. Life skills, such as impulse control, motivation, goal setting, sociability and self-esteem, are learned in the early years. No amount of money or remedial education can make up for that deficit down the road.

In the long run, toddler programs help reduce juvenile crime, promote healthy lifestyles and improve academic achievement. How astonishing then that in the United States spending on early childhood education is much lower than in most industrialized countries. Indiana is one of only 10 states that do not directly fund pre-K education. HB 1004 would have used vouchers to help 1,000 lowincome children attend preschool. Although this would have been a modest beginning, it would have been an important first step. There are 25,000 Indiana 4-year-olds who do not have access to high-quality preschool.

Those who claim the state should not be in the business of funding day care, who call it nothing more than baby-sitting, close their eyes to the proven research that tells us how high-quality preschool can stop the generational poverty cycle and enable children to learn and succeed. Those who claim we cannot afford the price forget the long-term financial and human costs in juvenile delinquency, crime and low graduation rates. The business of government is ensuring that future generations of young people will have the opportunity to become productive and contributing citizens.

We do not need yet another study committee. We already know that the greater the preschool enrollment, the smaller the gap between high- and low-income children. Every year that we postpone implementation of these programs is another year we deprive our children of access to the American dream. Every year we delay putting an infrastructure in place is another year we lose out on a federal grant, another year we deny our families the chance to break the cycle of poverty.

Young children are born filled with curiosity and a desire to learn. They can teach us about the power of imagination and dreams. We must give them every possible tool to enable them to fulfill their dreams. For their sake, for the sake of our state, we cannot afford to put this urgent matter on hold. 

Dennis Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis; Sandy Sasso is rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.