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.”

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.