Indiana Democrats Offer $150mil Universal Pre-K Proposal

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Two top Democrats in Indiana have unveiled a plan for creating a state-funded preschool program that would be available to all Indiana children regardless of income.

Former House Speaker John Gregg, who is running for governor, and state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz rolled out a proposal that would redirect $150 million to a universal pre-K program that would be would be paid for with existing money. The money would be reprioritized from already-existing state spending.

Indiana governor Mike Pence, a Republican, supports the state's current "On My Way Pre-K" pilot program that was launched across five Indiana counties in 2015 and has since sent 23,000 low-income children to preschool at an annual cost of $10 million. According to the Chicago Tribune, in 2014 Governor Pence opted against taking $80 million in federal funding, arguing that he did not want the federal government intruding on Indiana's education sector. Unsurprisingly, Democrats have criticized his stance.

"These aren't mythical dollars that Washington, D.C. prints up and sends back to us — these are our tax dollars," Gregg said. "The governor decided because of his differences on an ideology basis with the president, he didn't want to take the dollars … I don't know who the next president is gonna be, but Ol' John is gonna get every one of our tax dollars back."

Indiana is one of the few states that does not offer a robust pre-kindergarten program. The adoption of a statewide program has been difficult as Republicans, religious conservatives, and a network of homeschool families oppose object statewide education policies. And these groups are particularly repelled at the thought of state officials cooperating with federal authorities in the development of education policy.

Governor Pence, however, has begun showing interest in a universal pre-K system after recognizing that his state is lagging behind others in preparing students for higher education and future employment. Previously, he stated his opposition to a universal early education system, and his critics, as reported by Jim Shella of WishTV, have accused him of changing his opinion only ahead of an upcoming election rather than taking an unpopular stand on education that could cost him votes.

According to Alex Brown, a journalist for Inside Indiana, the first year of the program laid out by state Democrats would cost $150 million. The Indiana Department of Education estimates that 50% of the state would be participating in the program by 2020. If that target is reached, Indiana would rank eighth in the nation for preschool participation. The program would give immediate pre-K access to 21,000 children in its first year.

"We know the benefits of early learning, that's why John Gregg and I are committed to ensuring that every Hoosier 4-year old has access to a high-quality pre-K program as soon as possible," said Ritz. "My department has identified more than $200 million in existing state funds that could be used to expand capacity and opportunity right now. Our children and our communities deserve nothing less."

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