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Michael Conn-Powers
Indiana Institute on Disability and Community

Terry Spradlin
Center for Evaluation and Education Policy

Nicole Roales
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Monday, August 7, 2006

Prekindergarten program is needed to close Indiana's achievement gap, IU experts say

August 7, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A statewide prekindergarten program is critical if Indiana is serious about closing its achievement gap and ensuring that all students have the skills they need for college and work success, Indiana University education experts say.

"Much of what we have done is aimed at fixing learning problems long after they have been identified. Why wait for children to fail before we do something?," said Michael Conn-Powers, director of the Early Childhood Center at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community (IIDC) and lead author of a just-issued policy brief from IU.

Despite the initiatives already underway to reform Indiana high schools and keep more students in school, many students will fail because their learning needs were not met at the start of their education, Conn-Powers said. While there are early education efforts happening at the local level, there is little oversight and no funding from the state to ensure high-quality programs are available for all children who need them.

"Our review of the research, and of what many other states are doing, point to the need to create a statewide prekindergarten program. The reality is if we want to be serious in addressing poor high school graduation rates, then we need to start earlier in children's lives," Conn-Powers said. "That means providing the high-quality services during children's preschool years to prevent problems before they begin and before they cost us more."

Conn-Powers addresses the issue in the report, "Closing the Achievement Gap Series: Part I—Is Indiana Ready for State-Sponsored Prekindergarten Programs?", the latest publication in the IU Center for Evaluation and Education Policy's Education (CEEP) Policy Brief series. CEEP and the IIDC have partnered for a three-part series addressing the achievement gap in Indiana.

The brief provides an overview of the research demonstrating the positive benefits of early learning programs, and it tackles major policy questions regarding publicly-funded prekindergarten programs. It also contains essays by Luke Messer, who represents District 57 in the Indiana House of Representatives, and W. Steven Barnett, professor at Rutgers University and director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. To view the brief, visit

A prekindergarten program educates preschool-aged children (typically 3- and 4-year-olds) with the explicit goal of improving school readiness. In 2004, 38 states offered publicly-funded prekindergarten programs, in part to address the same challenges that Indiana faces. Indiana is one of a handful of states that does not offer any funding for prekindergarten. States typically operate prekindergarten through their state education agency, even though public schools or private early care and education programs may provide the local prekindergarten services. The requirement that districts offer the programs is generally optional, not mandatory, in most states. Terry Spradlin, associate director for education policy at CEEP, believes Indiana is waiting too long for student failure before taking action.

"Addressing Indiana's achievement gap only at the high school level is a shortsighted strategy," he said.

Prekindergarten programs have been extensively evaluated for their quality and impact. Research studies and program evaluations have demonstrated numerous short- and long-term educational, social and economic outcomes, especially for children in poverty-stricken families. IU's research indicates the return on investment for prekindergarten programs range from $4 to $12.90 in public savings for every $1 spent.

"Looking at the research, the message is invest now or face having to pay the higher costs associated with later intensive school remediation, social services and higher rates of crime and delinquency. Early education and prekindergarten is really a wise investment," Conn-Powers said.

Below are some recommendations that, according to the policy brief, are starting points for Indiana's policy makers to explore the feasibility of publicly-funded prekindergarten:

  • Identify and agree upon the purpose, goals and desired outcomes of a publicly-funded prekindergarten program. As Indiana stakeholders, policy makers and legislators proceed, a critical first step is to begin with the end in mind. It likely will be the most difficult step in the process, but is necessary if later efforts are to be successful. Decisions concerning whom to serve, how to serve and funding will all flow from this initial agreement.
  • Link the level of funding for a statewide prekindergarten program with the desired program goals and outcomes. A determination of appropriate levels of funding must be based upon what it will cost to accomplish the goals and outcomes identified under the first recommendation. Recognizing the fiscal realities facing Indiana, any compromise in the levels of funding must be linked with an understanding of what will or will not be accomplished.
  • Identify a funding source that is stable and continuous. If Indiana commits to offering publicly-funded prekindergarten, it must ensure those services are ongoing and of high quality. A stable source of funding is a prerequisite.
  • Determine and commit to a state and local governance system for prekindergarten programs. Determining the lead agency, commission or consortium to administer the state prekindergarten program early in the process is critical for two reasons. First, state and local administrative entities will be responsible for ensuring accountability and promoting high quality services and outcomes. Second, making these decisions early in the process is important in order to foresee and address potential roadblocks before they arise.

The mission of the IIDC is to work with communities to welcome, value and support the meaningful participation of people of all ages and abilities through research, education and service.

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous nonpartisan program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

To learn more about the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community and its Early Childhood Center, go to, and to learn more about CEEP, visit