Despite criticism from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that Indiana’s preschool pilot program should not shut out children who are in the country without permission, Gov. Mike Pence’s office said the rule is needed to stay consistent with the way federal preschool programs work.

Chalkbeat reported earlier this month that the state’s new preschool pilot program, open to about 2,300 children in five counties, blocked children of immigrant families from enrolling if they are not U.S. citizens. Federal rules that require K-to-12 public schools to be open to non-citizen children don’t apply for preschool.

After Education Week magazine reported on Chalkbeat’s story, Duncan issued a statement Friday saying it doesn’t make sense for Indiana to bar children because of their immigration status.

“Indiana is rightfully proud of its steps to expand preschool programs and elevate quality, but it’s shortsighted and wrong to deny children educational opportunity from the starting line because of their immigration status – especially children who are clearly here through no fault of their own,” Duncan said. “There is no better bang for our buck educationally than preschool, and we need more children in America getting an early start – not fewer.”

Duncan specifically rejected the notion that Indiana’ program had to be designed to block some immigrant children to comply with federal law.

“Nothing in federal law requires state or local preschool programs to exclude any child from participation on the basis of their immigration status, and doing so just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

But Pence’s spokeswoman Marni Lemons said the program was always intended to be very limited, and its purpose is to collect data to inform future decisions about preschool funding.

“It does require that an eligible child be a citizen or qualified alien because it is designed to be consistent with how funds are distributed under the federal Child Care and Development Fund grant program,” she said in an email. “However, it is important to note that unauthorized children are not at risk of not being accepted/being enrolled in other publicly funded preschools.”

The state preschool pilot program was Pence’s signature legislative accomplishment of 2013. The program took Indiana off a list of just 10 states that provided not direct state aid to help pay tuition support for poor children. Before the pilot program, the only government aid to help poor children attend preschool came from the federal CCDF grant, which is administered by the state.

When Indiana designed the pilot program, it sought to match its rules to the federal program to make it easy to administer. Duncan and others say Indiana could have designed its program to allow all children, even those who are not U.S. citizens, to participate.

Lemons said immigrant families should look to other options for preschool support.

“We encourage families who are still seeking pre-kindergarten opportunities to reach out to their local public school systems and to Head Start programs in their counties,” she said. “Those programs are funded with federal funding streams and do not require citizenship documentation.”

Senate President David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma declined comment.