A new Indiana plan to expand state-funded preschool allows the program to extend to 15 new counties, ties it to the state’s private school voucher program and includes a controversial option for online preschool.
Currently, the $10 million state-funded On My Way Pre-K program serves around 1,500 low-income students in five counties. Expanding preschool access in Indiana has been a key goal of lawmakers this session, including Gov. Eric Holcomb.
The size of the expansion remains unclear, but under a budget proposal likely to remain intact, the state would double the program’s size. They’d dedicate $20 million to brick-and-mortar preschool annually – and allow it to grow in a limited fashion.
The Indiana General Assembly approved the preschool plan Friday. It now heads to the governor’s desk.
“This important legislation gives more children in more counties the chance to start their educational journey on the right foot,” Holcomb said, in a statement. “It will be a joy to sign this bill into law.”
House Rep. Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis), architect of the preschool expansion, says the state’s 92 counties are all eligible to compete to become one of 15 counties included in the expansion. Rural counties and counties with a lack of high-quality preschool providers, he says, will be prioritized.
“Studies have shown low-income children often start kindergarten up to 18 months behind their peers. Without some form of intervention, like pre-K, this achievement gap could still be present at age 10,” Behning said, in a statement. “On My Way Pre-K and similar high-quality programs can provide children living in poverty a strong start to their academic careers.”
The budget proposal also dedicates $1 million annually to a contentious online preschool option. Although the preschool plan does not require the state to fund that online preschool option, it lays out a framework to do so. It’s unlikely the state would choose not to use money for that option.
In a controversial move, students would automatically be enrolled in the choice scholarship program if the preschool they attend is a private school that accepts state-funded vouchers.
In the original House version of the bill, any student receiving a preschool scholarship would automatically qualify for a voucher to attend kindergarten. But the Senate stripped that provision out. Under a compromise, students would now automatically receive a voucher to attend private kindergarten, only if they do so in the same building.
Along with funding, lawmakers also argued over tying state preschool money into the voter program. The original House bill stipulation that children receiving a state preschool grant were also eligible for the state’s voucher program. The Senate removed this part of the bill.
Jennifer McCormick, state superintendent of public instruction, said, in a statement, she’s “pleased to see an expansion,” but denounces the voucher link.
“Given the state’s overall financial situation and concerns regarding K-12 funding, we do not support tying the voucher initiative to this effort,” McCormick said.
To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four still couldn’t earn more than $30,861, or 127 percent of the federal poverty level. But in the original five counties only, families of four making up to $44,863, or 185 percent of the federal poverty level, could apply if all interested lower-income families received services.
The preschool plan kills the state’s $2 million early education matching grant program and rolls it into the On My Way Pre-K program. Currently, the two programs operate separately.
The proposed increase in preschool funding falls below what Gov. Holcomb and preschool advocates originally asked for.
“This is a very, very modest step in the direction we want to go,” says Rep. Edward Delaney (D-Indianapolis). “Four-year-olds don’t divide themselves up by county.”
Delaney and other advocates hope to see more state-funding dedicated to expanding preschool to all 92 Indiana counties.
Senate Republicans have said they are wary of allocating millions more dollars to a state-funded pilot program that hasn’t been fully studied. And Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) made financial and idealogical objections.