Early Education

Democrats raise doubts about Ballard's preschool plan

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Preschoolers at Shepherd Community Center last year.

Democrats who are wary of some parts of Mayor Greg Ballard’s blockbuster $50 million proposal to help more children attend preschool across Indianapolis will offer their own preschool expansion plan later this month.

While some of Ballard’s allies are charging that Democrats are playing politics and putting at risk opportunities for poor Indianapolis children, both supporters of his plan and some of those with reservations say they are optimistic that expanding preschool can still happen.

“My Democratic friends have been in favor of pre-K until Republicans say, ‘let’s do this,'” said City-County Council member Aaron Freeman. “Amazingly, it’s a fight. Everybody’s got to have an alternative plan. Frankly, I’m sorry, but the time for deal making and the time for alternative plans is kind of gone.”

Even so, Democrats and Republicans have been holding talks in search of a compromise.

“We are 100 percent committed to getting preschool done for our children and for our city for 2015,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.

From Ballard’s July announcement calling for preschool to be a central pillar in his plan to sustainably curb the city’s crime and education problem, there were signs that the political road ahead might not be smooth.

For instance, Council president Maggie Lewis and other prominent Democrats were noticeably absent from the announcement and soon after began raising concerns about Ballard’s preferred method of funding the program: eliminating the local homestead tax credit.

Ballard has argued that while cutting the homestead credit would cost some Indianapolis homeowners an average of $22 per year that they now save from their tax bills, it would be worth it to support 1,300 more spots for preschoolers and help local providers meet high-quality standards.

Democrats have countered that eliminating the tax credit would both cost some homeowners more and hurt the city’s 11 public school districts by also taking away more than $3 million they receive. But Ballard responded that the school districts would benefit significantly by enrolling more incoming students who were better prepared to start kindergarten because they had been to preschool first.

Council Vice President John Barth, a Democrat, said he plans to unveil an alternative to Ballard’s plan in time for the City-County Council’s next meeting on Sept. 22. Though Barth hasn’t finalized all the details of what his plan will entail, he’s sure that it won’t include using the elimination of the homestead tax credit as a funding source.

“The resistance to that funding mechanism is not new and is well known,” Barth said. “I am working on a proposal that gets specific and into the weeds on how a pre-K program would work in Indianapolis.”

Ballard’s staff and some Republican council members said they are open to considering alternative funding plans if it can assure the preschool plan happens.

“We appreciate and welcome any and all ideas that Councilman Barth would propose,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said. “The homestead tax is one sustainable source of funding preschool and putting more police officers on the street. However, we are open to any sustainable funding source and are eager to hear the Democratic counter-proposal for funding this.”

Kloth said he is in talks with Barth and others, including Lewis, to work through their differences with the mayor’s plan. Most of the negotiations are centered around how to fund the program, Barth said.

“To me, if we agree preschool is No. 1, then we need to re-balance the budget to demonstrate that,” Barth said. “That’s a painful process, but we’re working through that. I’m trying to navigate through the middle and get everyone on the same page.”

Republican Councilman Jeff Miller said he became a strong preschool proponent after he saw the learning gains his child made while attending a preschool program. He said he would be receptive to hearing an alternative to the mayor’s plan if it means more kids get to attend preschool.

Miller said there likely will be support for an alternative plan among Republicans on the council.

“For me, it’s never been about the funding having to come from here, here or here,” Miller said. “The funding has to come from a source that is viable. It felt like the homestead credit was a good way to go. But I’ll be the first to say that if there are other plans out there, I’m willing to listen to them.”

Others aren’t open to deal making.

Councilman Steve Tally, a Democrat, said he opposes the mayor’s proposal because of it will cost money that now goes to public schools, libraries and other services. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, stands to lose $734,000 if the homestead tax is eliminated.

“In addition to increasing the tax burden on our residents, it disproportionately impacts people who live in very modest homes and our seniors who have paid their mortgages off in some of the most challenging neighborhoods,” Tally said.

Some councilmembers just think it’s time to eliminate the homestead tax credit for good.

“If there was a way to (fund preschool) with some other funding mechanism, I’d certainly consider it, but my concern is that any proposal that’s floated is going to be for the purpose of avoiding eliminating the homestead credit,” said Republican Councilman Will Gooden. “I’m afraid if they’re treated separately at this point, the can is once again going to get kicked down the road.”

Time is running out for the council to decide if it wants to use the tax credit elimination. By law, Kloth said, there is a Sept. 22 deadline to vote on the tax credit.

Meanwhile, education leaders and preschool advocates are waiting to see if the city will make a big commitment to preschool.

Ted Maple, president of preschool provider Day Nursery Association and a long time advocate for expanded preschool, said he doesn’t care how the city’s preschool program is funded as long as it is high quality.

“I’m hopeful we can come to an agreement as soon as possible,” Maple said. “We have too many children out there that need early childhood education. We as a community have waited too long to do the right thing for kids. If we put it off now, we’re at risk of putting it off again for a really long time.”

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report.