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.”

legislative look-back

Holcomb pulls off a near-perfect education record in his first session as Indiana governor, and with far less drama than in years past

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb managed a rare feat in his first year on the job — to check nearly every box on his education agenda for 2017.

At the beginning of the year, Holcomb set four specific goals for K-12 education: making the state superintendent appointed by 2021; doubling state funding for preschool; adding funding  for school internet access; and better coordinating science, technology, engineering and math initiatives across the state.

It wasn’t always clear whether those proposals would pass. But Holcomb was ultimately able to get what he wanted with fairly little drama — unlike his predecessor, Vice President Mike Pence.

“The legislature over-delivered,” Holcomb said Tuesday. “Now it’s time for us to take these tools and new resources and put them to work.”

Holcomb’s success likely hinged both on his collaborative approach to working with lawmakers — in contrast to the more ideological and aggressive approaches, respectively, of former Gov. Pence and his predecessor, Gov. Mitch Daniels — and the less controversial makeup of his education priorities.

Pence failed to make much progress when he tried to break new ground in some way — like with plans to re-imagine teachers’ roles in schools — or when he faced vehement opposition, like his attempts to further reduce union negotiating power. Holcomb’s priorities, for the most part, were harder to argue with: a need for more preschool for poor children, better school internet access or more opportunities to prepare kids for the workforce and science- and math-related fields.

Although Pence was ultimately able to push through many of his education priorities, such as establishing a preschool program, driving up career and technical education funding, and increasing support for charter schools and vouchers, his efforts brought more opposition from lawmakers, even those in his own party.

Take preschool.

When Pence put out the call for a state-funded pilot program after years of debate, senators were extremely skeptical. In the waning days of the 2014 session, they stripped any meaningful investment from the bill, turning it instead into a suggestion to study the issue over the summer. At the last minute, after Pence himself testified before lawmakers, the funding was restored, and the program became a reality.

This year, the same last-ditch attempts to kill the proposal were absent. After the Senate proposed only increasing preschool spending by $4 million, lawmakers came back with a $20 million-per-year plan in line with Holcomb’s initial ask.

Holcomb also had the benefit of not having to go head-to-head with the state schools chief.

Pence’s frequent battles with then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz were a notable part of his administration. Current Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, on the other hand, was fairly aligned with Holcomb’s goals from the beginning — even signing on to support his call to make her position appointed, rather than elected, in the future.

That’s the one area in his education policy agenda where Holcomb didn’t eke out a full win — but it was arguably also the most controversial part of his agenda, with many educators and some lawmakers asserting that the move takes away an independent education voice at the Statehouse. The proposal has been debated in some way for more than 30 years.

Holcomb originally supported a 2021 start date for the appointment, which would allow him to make the appointment if elected to a second term. Instead, this year’s legislation would have it begin in 2025, meaning McCormick could seek a second term and Holcomb wouldn’t be the executive empowered to make the first secretary of education pick.

Holcomb said Tuesday that he has no desire to revisit that legislation in order to change the effective date.

He reiterated his goal of collaboration Tuesday when addressing reporters during a press conference, pointing to his relationship with McCormick.

“We’ll continue to meet and collaborate and work on issues that we both know are of the utmost importance,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll get there together. I look forward to it.”

As far as bills that weren’t on his agenda, Holcomb today said he plans to sign into law Senate Bill 567, which would appoint emergency financial managers in the Gary and Muncie school districts. He also indicated support for House Bill 1003, which would replace the state’s ISTEP test with a new program to be called “ILEARN” in 2019.

You can find other education bills that moved ahead this session here in our legislative wrap-up.

social studies

Tennessee’s long journey to new social studies standards nears its finish line

Tennessee is one step closer to having new social studies standards after almost 1½ years of unprecedented public scrutiny and feedback.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Friday to move ahead with a revision that was begun partly out of concern over how Islam is being taught in seventh-grade world history.

Now receiving attention is the question of whether too much Tennessee history is being removed from standards that most everyone agrees were over-laden with material.

The proposed draft, which will undergo a final vote in July, reduces the number of standards overall by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

Members of the Standards Recommendation Committee have presented the proposal as striking the right balance.

“There’s an infinite number of people and facts that are significant, and we can’t include them all,” said Todd Wigginton, who led the teacher review and is director of instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But Bill Carey, one of the panel’s nine members, offered a dissenting opinion to the section for grades 1-5.

“In these standards, the Plateau of Tibet is mentioned twice but the Cumberland Plateau is never mentioned,” said Carey, who is executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “… I think a case can be made that there’s too much of Tennessee missing.”

Wigginton said the idea behind the final draft is that teachers should have more flexibility, and focus more on important concepts.

He said Tennessee’s new standards asked students to consider, for example, the significance of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, rather than memorize a list of people and dates.

The state spearheaded a laborious review for social studies beginning in January 2016 after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the new standards.

The draft reflects tens of thousands comments from hundreds of Tennessee residents over the course of two public reviews, as well as nearly 100 hours of meetings by the committee. That panel, along with a team of educators who reviewed public feedback last summer, created standards that they say allows teachers flexibility and the freedom to go in-depth, while also covering key topics.

Unlike many other states, Tennessee hasn’t cordoned off Tennessee history to specific units for nearly two decades, choosing instead to “embed” state-specific facts across all grades. Carey said he’s made a career out of helping teachers incorporate Tennessee material into their history classes. He noted that several state historical associations and museums have raised concerns too about the final draft.

“In my opinion, for embedding to work, Tennessee topics have to be clearly spelled out in the standards,” said Carey, who submitted a minority report to share his concerns. “If they’re not, teachers won’t get the message that they have to cover Tennessee history.”

Jason Roach, a former social studies teacher and now principal of Mooresburg Elementary School in Hawkins County, said those terms could be incorporated into curriculum, even if they aren’t explicitly spelled out in the standards.

Standards lay out what students should know at each grade level, while curriculum includes the lessons and activities that students study and do throughout the school year.

“Tennessee history needs to be taught in Tennessee schools. I believe that,” Roach said. But, he continued, teachers should decide how to build curriculum on a local level, rather than the state over-prescribing what should be covered through the standards.

During a discussion Thursday about the final draft, board members offered praise about both the process and the results.

“You did an incredible job,” said Lillian Hartgrove, who represents part of Middle Tennessee. “I know it’s not exactly what everyone wanted … but what you have accomplished is truly incredible.”

Tennessee’s academic standards in all four core subject areas have been overhauled over the last three years, and social studies standards are the only ones still in the works.

If approved, the new Tennessee Academic Standards for Social Studies will reach the state’s classrooms in the 2019-2020 school year.