Mayor Greg Ballard won praise today for his $50 million plan to combat crime with programs that aim to get kids in school sooner and keep them there longer.

Under his proposal, city and private dollars would aim to send 1,300 more poor children to preschool, while also studying ways to reduce class time older students lose to suspension, expulsion or by dropping out of school.

But even with strong support — his office sent out statements written by 10 community leaders of groups ranging from free market-focused Friedman Foundation to the Urban League, which advocates on issues of race and poverty  — the changes he proposed are complex and leave unanswered questions.

Among them:

  • Can school districts afford his plan? Tax changes to fund Ballard’s plan could cost Marion County schools more than $3 million in revenue. He argues it will offer support for their preschoolers and future students.
  • Should the state play a bigger role? If enacted, Indianapolis’ preschool program would dwarf a small statewide pilot that Gov. Mike Pence just celebrated as his signature 2014 legislative accomplishment.
  • Can the city’s preschool system even support the plan? More preschools will have to earn high ratings to accommodate 1,300 new preschoolers Ballard hopes to serve.
  • Will it put concerns about discipline of black boys on the agenda? A series of recent studies suggest black children, especially boys, are disciplined more often and more severely than their peers, but efforts to address the problem stalled earlier this year.
  • Will a $50 million investment in children make a difference? Ballard is banking that, in the long run, better educated children will become more productive citizens, and that will pay off in lower crime rates.

Even with those challenges, preschool advocates praised Ballard for thinking boldly.

“The plan is really big, and it moves us beyond that pilot stage into a full implementation,” said Ted Maple, executive director of Day Nursery Association. “We’ll reach a critical mass of children.”

Costs raise concern

First Ballard needs to get the plan approved by the City-County Council, and council President Maggie Lewis is among those who want more information about its costs and how they will be paid.

“It’s important the mayor sit down with council leadership and talk this through,” she said. “I’ve been a strong advocate for quality preschool. But I am concerned that this plan will take dollars away from our existing education structure.”

Indeed, Ballard’s plan to raise funds for preschool by eliminating the homestead tax credit would trigger a cascade of effects to the county’s tax structure that could result in an estimated loss of more than $3 million to its school districts.

But Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth argued that Ballard’s plan is actually the best case scenario for schools when compared to several other proposals in recent years to cut the homestead credit and use the money for other city priorities.

“At some point the homestead tax credit is going to be eliminated and it won’t benefit school districts when it does,” Kloth said.

Most of the school districts in the city serve children from low-income families, who will come to them better prepared if they have attended high quality preschool, he said. Also, Kloth said, school districts, such as Indianapolis Public Schools, that offer preschool can directly benefit from the program. When new students from low-income families are enrolled, a share of the $50 million can be used as matching funds to support them.

Districts with preschool can also apply for grants to help raise the quality ratings of their preschool programs.

“Most school districts are going to more than make up for it in revenue through the program,” Kloth said.

IPS has been rapidly expanding its own preschool offerings, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee praised Ballard’s proposal.

“I am pleased to hear that Mayor Ballard is proposing a variety of plans to curb the culture of violence, including pre-kindergarten scholarships for families challenged by poverty,” he said. “Indianapolis Public Schools is aware of the positive impact early childhood education can have as it sets students up for a more successful future; that’s why we’re proud to expand our pre-k program again this year.”

State’s pilot program starts up

Marion County is one of five Indiana counties named recently to receive funds from the state’s first-ever pilot program to do just what Ballard proposes to do: offer direct aid to poor families to enroll their children in preschool. If everything goes as planned, the state pilot and the city’s support for preschool would both launch in the 2015-16 school year.

The difference is the statewide program is just $15 million in public and private money, less than a third the size of Ballard’s proposal. Indianapolis’ share of financial support for poor preschoolers from the state pilot program isn’t likely to exceed $3 million.

But with the state’s biennial budget session coming in January, there is optimism that the pilot could soon get more money and serve more kids.

“I do believe in the next budget we will have more money in it for preschool,” said Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee.

In fact, Ballard’s approach of encouraging public and private partnership to expand preschool mirrors the state pilot — which will match $10 million in state funds with $5 million in privately-raised funds.

“This is what we would like to see communities across the state do” Behning said, “leverage public and private resources to make a difference for kids.”

Investing in quality

A requirement of both the city and state programs is to ensure that children using the tuition aid they offer spend those dollars at high-rated preschool. The state has a voluntary four-step rating system called Paths to Quality. To receive public dollars, both programs require a 3 or 4 rating.

That’s because all preschool programs aren’t equal. High-quality programs meet stringent health and safety standards as well as provide engaging, age-appropriate curriculum for children that prepares them for kindergarten.

But only 15 percent of the city’s nearly 800 providers currently are considered high-quality.

“If we’re not investing in high-quality programs, this isn’t going to have the impact we want,” Maple said.

The scholarships will make an immediate impact on already high-quality providers that have spots available. What’s stopping them now from serving more children is that their programs are cost-prohibitive, Maple said.

About $10 million, a fifth of the mayor’s program, will go toward grants creating more space in schools that already have strong ratings, helping existing preschools improve and creating more high-quality options.

“You’ll see a lot of providers step up to higher levels of quality,” Maple said.

Keeping kids in school

Another education-related phenomenon that Ballard suggested leads to crime is at the other end of the spectrum — older kids who are out of school, either due to discipline or because they dropped out.

“We are talking about hundreds of mostly teens who are cast into the streets,” Ballard said. “And we wonder why we have crime in our neighborhoods.”

To try to combat that problem, he proposed a study to examine the root cause of the most serious kinds of school discipline, which disproportionately affect black students. Ballard said 1,800 students in Indianapolis were expelled or dropped out of school last year, many of whom are black and from low-income families.

Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League, said the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“The discipline disparities, frankly, are obnoxious,” he said.

Ballard said he wants the study to be presented to a legislative study committee, which will likely meet in September. Proposed changes to state law aimed at addressing school discipline earlier this year were shelved to allow more time for lawmakers to research the issue.

Behning, the House education chairman, said Ballard is right to tackle the issue.

“The truth is, when you are looking at the population Ballard is talking about and dealing with crime, sometimes exactly what they want is to suspend or expel them or to put them out into the street,” Behning said.

Karega Rausch, a research associate at The Equity Project at Indiana University, agrees this study is a good first step. Keeping kids engaged and in school is important to the community, as is altering discipline systems in a way to ensure schools are both safe and productive.

But Russell and Rausch said they hoped the study would also address a problem with how discipline data is categorized: rather than choose one of 17 state categories for schools to explain severe discipline, the reasons many students are suspended or expelled is often listed as simply “other.”

Discovering the real reasons why kids face serious discipline should prompt schools to reconsider their policies, said Jamal Smith, executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

“We think that it is an issue and has been an issue for quite some time,” Smith said. “Statistically, all the data has built up over the years, and as they say on ESPN, the numbers don’t lie.”

The civil rights commission, Smith said, is already investigating racial disparities in discipline, which he said could eventually result in lawsuits on behalf of young people.

Schools might blame rapid demographic shifts, Smith said, but the problem is not a new one in many places, and schools must be held accountable.

“Unfortunately it not only speaks to the roles of education, specifically for young black boys, but it speaks to, indirectly, how it affects the community as a whole in a negative way,” Smith said.

Discipline disparity  is a problem that’s been overlooked for too long, said Rausch, who previously served as the city’s charter school director under Ballard.

“There’s something about race we have to figure out as a community together,” he said.

Will it make a difference?

When Pence jumped on board and helped push through the state pilot program earlier this year, it was a long delayed victory for advocates of public support for preschool.

The United Way was the agency most at the center of that push in recent years.

“The attention was really all on K-12,” Executive Director Ann Murtlow said. “No one was focused on birth to five-year-olds. In those early years, if the neural connections are not made, it’s not as simple as kids coming into kindergarten without knowledge. It impacts their physiological ability to be lifelong learners.”

Support for preschool has grown, especially in the business community.

“The attention on early childhood education really creates a good long term focus on improving our community,” Murtlow said. “When you’re working with young children, it’s going to be a long time before they are adults, but we’re providing the foundation for success.”

The more robust preschool system that Ballard envisions will have a trickle-up effect in the city’s schools, Maple said.

“It’s going to mean a lot for the city to have an education system that’s built on a stronger foundation,” he said.