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Students play at Busy Bees Academy, a public preschool in Columbus.

Early Childhood Education: How To Pay For Indiana's Youngest Students

Background

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Students play at Busy Bees Academy, a public preschool in Columbus.

In recent years, Indiana has raised expectations for its youngest students. And that means it’s more important than ever that kindergarteners arrive at school ready to learn.

But nearly half of all students start kindergarten without any kind of early childhood education. Indiana is one of 10 states that doesn’t provide any public money for preschool — but, if elected leaders get their way, that could change in 2014.

Gov. Mike Pence says finding money to pay for pre-K is his No. 1 education priority for the upcoming session. He has the support of prominent Republicans like Speaker of the House Brian Bosma and House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning.

Yet broad support for early learning wasn’t enough to pass a small-scale preschool pilot in 2013 — and doing so in a non-budget year could be even trickier. Some state lawmakers, such as Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, say Indiana just approved funding for all-day kindergarten in 2012 and need to see how that works before passing pre-K legislation.

In the past, Pence has said he favors a local, organic approach to solving Indiana’s pre-K problem. He praised Busy Bees Academy in his hometown of Columbus for using a combination of public resources and private money to enroll more 4-year-olds in preschool. Yet funding for Busy Bees dwindled after voters rejected a property tax levy increase.

Now Pence thinks the state’s best bet is a targeted program for low-income families. The mechanics would look a lot like the state’s private school voucher program for K-12 students, with eligibility up to 185 percent of the poverty level. But with roughly 40,000 Hoosier 4-year-olds eligible, the back-of-the-napkin numbers add up quickly — serving kids not already enrolled in the federally-funded Head Start program could cost as much as $126 million per year.

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