preschool funding

Another big push for expanding preschool aid is coming, but Indiana lawmakers remain skeptical

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers play at School 55 in Indianapolis Public Schools.

There is perhaps more bipartisan support in Indiana for preschool aid than any other education issue, but one key group remains unconvinced that it should expand — the legislature.

That became increasingly clear today when a coalition of business and community groups called on legislators during a meeting of an interim fiscal policy committee to support a plan to expand the state’s preschool pilot program by adding in more state money. An expanded program could support more children to attend more preschools in more counties and help the five counties where the pilot is now — including Marion County — to meet high demand.

The state’s preschool tuition support pilot program, along with a similar program instituted by the city of Indianapolis, “have demonstrated significant demand for high-quality preschool,” said Jay Geshay of the United Way of Central Indiana. “The success of this program makes it clear to us that it’s time to expand.”

But Republicans on the committee are still unsure of the benefits to be gained from state-funded preschool.

“If we’re going to put X number of dollars into preschool, we’re not putting it somewhere else,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers. “So what’s the argument to be made about why to make the investment here?”

The proposal would add more state money to pay preschool tuition for poor children and remove requirements that philanthropic groups and business match preschool funding. It would also raise the family income limit to about $44,900 from about $30,000 now, making more children eligible. The proposal did not come with an estimate for how much more it would cost the state.

Indiana lawmakers have long hesitated — or been downright opposed — to ponying up state money for preschool. In 2014, only a last-minute resurrection of a controversial bill made possible the current pilot program, and the $10 million to support it. That took Indiana off a list of just 10 states at the time that provided no direct aid for poor children to attend preschool.

The coalition of preschool advocates, who presented some details of their plan earlier this summer, said there is plenty of data to support the idea that preschool helps kids academically and socially. The presentation included data suggesting that every dollar Indiana spends on preschool would return four times as much in future savings. Preschool reduces the need for some special education, school remediation and juvenile justice expenses, the report said.

“Many kids enter kindergarten without knowing any letters or numbers,” said Connie Bond Stuart, the regional president for PNC Bank and board chair for the United Way of Central Indiana. “They have a difficult time ever catching up.”

Stuart and others said they were asking just for an expansion of what already exists, rather than a bolder move toward a universal state program, which is what state Superintendent Glenda Ritz has proposed.

Still, lawmakers remained unconvinced.

Some referenced a study from Tennessee last year that stunned preschool advocates with its findings that the state’s voluntary preschool program actually scored worse on academic and behavioral measures by third grade. Other studies show high quality preschool leads to long term benefits, such as avoiding jail, higher pay and more stable marriages, later in life.

Some lawmakers also argued the pilot needs more time to show results in Indiana.

“I don’t think we can even measure that yet,” said Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Muncie. “I can’t with a straight face tell anybody that we have a successful program yet.”

There are some important things to keep in mind before trying to compare Indiana and Tennessee, said Amanda Lopez, a consultant who worked on the coalition’s report. Indiana only awards funding to providers that have earned a level 3 or 4 rating on the state’s four-step Paths to Quality scale. That means the programs meet safety standards and have an academic program.

“The quality standards that Tennessee has are not the same as Indiana’s,” Lopez said. “Tennessee expanded their statewide pre-K program very quickly, where the infrastructure wasn’t really in place … They’re also funded at a much lower rate than in Indiana.”

After the meeting, Michael O’Connor, public affairs manager for Eli Lilly and an Indianapolis Public Schools Board member, said lawmakers need to consider the long-term, even if it seems costly now.

“The legislative officials have to sometimes step outside the boundaries of normal government decision-making,” O’Connor said. “What we’re asking the state to do is to look at this as a an investment.”

Rally

This Tennessee teacher spoke at a rally in support of trans students. Here’s what he wants lawmakers to know.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
More than 100 protestors attended a rally in support of the state's transgender students at the state Capitol.

Months after he began teaching at Tennessee’s second-largest high school, Westlee Walker started a student group for LGBTQ students and their allies in response to a string of three student suicides.

“Students were coming to me, and they needed a safe space (to talk),” said Walker, in his second year of teaching at Nashville’s McGavock High School. “It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. … If a student doesn’t feel safe, they will not be able to learn.”

Walker joined more than 100 other Tennesseans Friday at a rally at the state Capitol in support of the state’s trans students. The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, with students from across the state, organized the rally over a decision by President Trump’s administration to pull protections that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon have filed a bill that would limit Tennessee transgender students to using the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Asked Monday about their proposal, Beavers declined to comment, and Pody did not immediately respond. However, some other state leaders have said such a bill is unnecessary, and that decisions about bathrooms should be made at the local level.

Several Tennessee students, parents and educators, including Walker, spoke at the rally. Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Nashville Democrats, also spoke, as did Nashville councilman Brett Withers.

Walker said he was glad to see state legislators at the event, and he extended an open for them to visit his class. He also extended the invitation to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

“Before I started teaching, I kind of assumed everyone had the same upbringing I did,” said Walker, who teaches agriculture science. “That’s just not the case. Students come from all different walks of life, not just LGBT students. I have students who are immigrants; I have students who are refugees. If I can just have one lawmaker sit in my class and hear the stories these kids are living at 14, 15 years old, it would completely change their perspective.”

Walker said that laws targeting any group of his students keep him from doing his job.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville teacher Westlee Walker speaks in support of his transgender students at a rally last Friday by the state Capitol in Nashville.

“If I cannot create that environment in my building, where a student who feels like they are alienated doesn’t feel safe, then I am failing as a teacher at a very basic level,” he said.

In light of the Trump administration’s decision, Director Shawn Joseph issued a statement reaffirming Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ policies aimed at protecting students and employees who say their gender identities are different from the ones on their birth certificates.

Shelby County Schools officials said in an emailed statement on Monday that district officials “will continue to closely follow the development of the law on this subject and await guidance from the State’s General Assembly and Board of Education before issuing a formal opinion about whether changes should be made to the District’s current practices.”

Until then, the statement continues, “Shelby County Schools will continue working with families individually to ensure all of our students’ educational needs are properly addressed.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”