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Data: A Key Driver for Early Childhood in Indiana

by Kent Mitchell, Vice President of Outreach and Partnerships, Early Learning Indiana

ELAC provides key insights into how Hoosiers can grow early opportunities.

We all care about young children and families in Indiana. But with 504,000 Hoosier children, aged five years and younger, good intentions are often not enough. Data about their well-being points to a tension between our aspirations and the results that we generate as a state.

A new data-driven report on early childhood was released in January by the Governor-appointed and volunteer-led Early Learning Advisory Committee – ELAC for short. ELAC’s annual report is the best snapshot of early childhood in our state and even includes county-level profiles. Here are my data-driven takeaways:

Child care and preschool/pre-K is not a “nice-to-have” or niche industry.

In Indiana, 332,000 children birth to five are spending time in some kind of environment outside the home. That fact results largely from the fact that in two-thirds of households with young children, all parents are working. There are 5,300 registered and licensed programs in our state, programs that are known and regulated. These programs serve 130,000 children each year and employ 33,000 staff.

These numbers make clear that Hoosiers want and need early childhood services. Most families with young children have working adults; and there are many programs throughout the state. We must embrace that child care and preschool/pre-K programs are part of the fabric of all Hoosier communities and nearly all Hoosier lives. If we do, our voices will be stronger and clearer when advocating for greater investment.

All children deserve high-quality early care and education, but many do not get it.

In Indiana, of the 5,300 registered and licensed programs, only 1,100 are rated “high-quality” by the state’s rating system, Paths to QUALITY™. These high-quality programs, those achieving Level 3 or 4 on Paths to QUALITY™ serve just 45,000 young Hoosiers. Nine (9) Indiana counties have zero high-quality programs – they are child care deserts.

While the definition of high-quality used by ELAC (and Early Learning Indiana) is not perfect, this data usefully illustrates a significant challenge in our state: many of our children, especially low-income children, do not attend programs with the resources, staffing and intentionality necessary to offer them not just care, but education. Only 42% of children in families that use a federally funded child care voucher use it at a high-quality program.

Times have changed and so must our field. Parents do not just want a safe place to put their child – though that is important to them – they want their child to be ready for success in school, in all the richness of that term, when they turn age five and enter Kindergarten.

The fact that so many Hoosier children are in programs that have not yet reached the pinnacle of quality is no one’s fault. It is a combination of many complex factors, but there is great news for Indiana in the ELAC report – we are making progress in our state’s quality journey. The number of high-quality programs in our state has doubled in just five years, from 520 in 2011 to 1,098 in 2016. The number of children educated and cared for in these programs increased from 25,000 to 45,000.

Quality preschool and pre-K costs more than we are currently willing to invest.

Deep in the ELAC report are the findings of a unique research project. Working with national partners, a key ELAC committee analyzed the true cost of running a high-quality preschool program in Indiana. They found that the costs for a full-day program are between $7,600 in a family child care home and $10,500 in a school.

Research like this is critical, because it can inform public policy. Currently, Indiana’s signature pre-K scholarship, On My Way Pre-K, covers up to $6,800 of that cost. This means that paying for the additional cost of high-quality pre-K falls to families or other funding sources, or may be absorbed by programs.

When considering solutions to the funding gap, one thing is clear from the ELAC report: cutting teacher salaries is not the way to go. Child care and preschool teachers in our field make an average of $9.77 to $13.74 per hour. Low wages already lead to high staff turnover and may reduce educational attainment in the profession, which negatively impacts young children.

We have big work to do in Indiana for our littlest learners, from improving quality and expanding access to advocating for greater funding for pre-K (Want to work on that? Sign up at All IN 4 Pre-K today.). In all of these tasks, data is power. Let’s use it wisely to create positive change for our youngest children and families.

If you have questions about this or any other data related to early childhood, we encourage you to contact our team of number crunchers at

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