INDIANAPOLIS | After dithering more than two decades before agreeing last year to fund full-day kindergarten in Indiana's schools, Hoosier lawmakers appear ready to act faster in establishing state-supported prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds.
But at the Statehouse, just because many people agree something should be done doesn't mean it will. And the pricetag on universal preschool -- up to $350 million a year -- all but guarantees the proposal will travel a rocky road toward the governor's desk.
"There is nothing more important for the future of our state, in my opinion, than early childhood education," said Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. "Those kids (who attend prekindergarten) not only do better in school, they have less of a need for remediation, and they do better in life."
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, believes prekindergarten creates an essential foundation for education and workforce training that ultimately produces the kind of highly skilled workers that employers crave.
"We need to take the steps to make this happen," Bosma said.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who this month cut $57 million in planned state spending to preserve Indiana's $2 billion budget reserve in the face of declining revenue, already is talking down the idea of the state paying for all children to attend prekindergarten, as it does in other grades.
"The results on pre-k are mixed," Pence said. "The evidence that universal pre-k programs improve outcomes for kids is thinner than one might think, but early learning programs targeted to at-risk and low-income children can and do work well."
Bosma and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce also are on board with limiting prekindergarten to a targeted group of children from low-income families, likely using state-funded vouchers in just a few counties to start.
"Studies and research show, without question, that for that community -- those folks who not only can't afford to have their child in a high-quality preschool program but also that don't have perhaps the socioeconomic background at home to enrich their children's lives adequately -- high-quality preschool programs do make a difference," Bosma said.
The estimated cost of providing prekindergarten to the state's 30,639 "at-risk" 4-year-olds not already participating in Head Start or other federal preschool programs is $149 million, according to an Indiana University study.
Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said cost will be the deciding factor in whether prekindergarten advances.
The Senate last session cited cost when it killed a House-approved, $7 million prekindergarten pilot program that would have served up to 1,000 low-income children from five of the state's 92 counties.
Also complicating matters, the upcoming session is not a budget year, meaning lawmakers would have to take the extraordinary step of reopening the two-year budget enacted last session to begin prekindergarten in fall 2014.
State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said that's why the Legislature meets in non-budget years -- to enact important measures, like prekindergarten, that require immediate attention even if they are costly.
Pence said he'd prefer lawmakers design the state's prekindergarten program next session and figure out how to pay for it during the 2015 budget session.
State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, doesn't see any reason to wait, especially since she considers prekindergarten an investment in the state's future.
"We have the money. We're sitting on a $2 billion surplus," VanDenburgh said. "The amount of money it would take to start the pre-k program is a drop in the bucket compared to the money that we have saved."
She said prekindergarten should be considered alongside other efforts the state regularly makes to attract and retain businesses.
"This will make our children more marketable once they get older, because we're competing against other states that have had early education for years and years and years," VanDenburgh said. "It's time to stop talking and put up the money and get it done."
The Republican-controlled General Assembly convenes Jan. 6 for a 10-week session.