Indiana’s Pence Reverses Course on Federal Preschool Money

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Two years ago, Indiana Governor Mike Pence turned down millions of dollars of federal grant money for preschool funding, but now the governor has sent a letter to US Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to say that he has reconsidered the offer. He added that he would like to expand the state’s $10 million per year program with the help of the current federal grant, according to Tony Cook and Chelsea Schneider of the USA Today Network.

“Because of the success of our first-ever, state-funded pre-K pilot program, I am committed to opening doors of opportunity to serve even more disadvantaged children in our state,” Pence said in an emailed statement about the letter. “Since the On My Way Pre-K pilot program has come online, we’ve served 2,300 kids in the five pilot project counties. I am committed to growing this program using state and available federal resources.”

Pence’s decision in 2014 to forego $80 million from the federal Preschool Development Grants was because of his worry that it would cause “federal intrusion.” The governor was harshly criticized by education officials and child advocacy groups. But Pence noted his decision was based on a promise he made to lawmakers.

The governor said he had promised not to expand the preschool program launched in 2015 until there was evidence that it was solidly up and running.

Pence, a Republican, is currently in a hotly contested race against his Democratic challenger, John Gregg. Polls have shown that more Indiana residents believe that Gregg would do a better job at supporting education policies than would Pence.

Not only did Pence push hard for the preschool program, but he also backed the expansion of charter schools in the state as well as supporting private school vouchers and eliminating Common Core.

Furthermore, the governor has tried to remove Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, as the chairperson of the state Board of Education along with attempting to eliminate the state’s ISTEP student assessment tests.

Peter Balonon-Rosen of WFYI Public Radio quoted Ritz, who said:

“Sadly, we have been here before with the Governor,” said Ritz, in a statement. “Over two years ago when the Governor ‘expressed interest’ in seeking pre-K funding, the Department spent hundreds of hours applying for $80 million in federal funding only to have the Governor change his mind and cancel the application at the last minute.”

And Andy Downs, the Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, says the letter that was supposedly sent to express his interest in the grant money for preschool may be a way to get positive input during an election year.

The Statehouse File explains that the funding is for low-income preschool students who live in one of the counties that is participating in the program. Now, according to Ritz, Indiana is years behind in developing and implementing pre-K.

The Associated Press says that another factor that added to Pence’s lack of interest in the 2014 grant money offer was the lobbying by groups such as religious conservatives, homeschoolers, and the Tea Party that were opposed to taking the federal money. At that time. Pence’s name was being tossed around as a possible GOP presidential candidate.

Now the pre-K program has become so popular that most families who have applied are being turned away due to lack of funding.

A spokesperson for John Gregg said that the governor’s change of heart concerning the grant money seems to be just an”election year stunt.”

Micah Clark, a member of the American Family Association of Indiana, said that any government program comes with strings attached. Clark referred to the recent threat of pulling funds from schools by the Obama administration, pointing to the mandates from the president to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity.