Preschool advocates stunned Pence dropped bid for $80 million grant

Indiana’s early childhood education advocates said they were stunned to learn today that Gov. Mike Pence had decided not to apply for a federal grant that could bring up to $80 million to support preschool for nearly 2,000 children from poor families.

“The announcement left us shocked and troubled,” said Stand For Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller, whose organization advocates for change in school districts and at the state level. “Our hope is that there will be a clearer explanation and more detail in the coming days about why the sudden decision to not move forward. Our first reaction is that we’re shocked given the momentum that has been built with multiple parties working toward this goal, not to mention we seemed to be in a very strong position to vie for the funding.”

Applications were due to the U.S. Department of Education Wednesday. But Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully reported Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee members learned by email today that the Pence administration did not apply, citing concerns about “federal intrusion” in preschool, after months of collaboration between public and private groups to craft the proposal.

Early Learning Indiana President Ted Maple, whose organization just received a $20 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to expand preschool access, said his organization helped prepare some information for the grant but was not formally part of the committee. Maple said he was seeking answers.

“Our focus at Early Learning Indiana is to ensure that as many kids as possible have access to high-quality early childhood education,” Maple said. “I’m not sure what the story is behind this application, so we’ll continue to do our work and hopefully we can continue to garner more resources and more partnerships.”

Indiana Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a statement he was disappointed by the news.

“The idea that we would, at this point, abruptly throw this opportunity away is hard to fathom,” Lanane said. “The governor owes those of us who have labored hard to get our state on board and see the benefits of early childhood education more than just a statement. It seems imprudent that we reject $80 million because of fear of some speculative ‘pitfalls’ and ‘unproven objectives’ perceived attached to them.”

Pence’s office did not immediately respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment. Tully wrote: In Wednesday’s email, Early Learning Advisory Committee Chairman Kevin Bain, a Pence appointee, announced that the “administration has decided not to submit the federal pre-K grant application.” He then posted a statement from the administration. “While accepting federal grant dollars can at times be justified to advance our state’s objectives,” it reads in part, “when it comes to early childhood education, I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program for disadvantaged children without federal intrusion.” The statement does not point to specific issues with the federal rules but notes that “we must be vigilant as we design the program the Indiana way and avoid the pitfalls that too often accompany untested and unproven objectives in federal policy.”

The decision comes at a time of increased public and private interest in preschool and expanding high-quality early learning options for poor children. The state had good odds of receiving the grant, as it was named a “category one” state along with Arizona, meaning the state could apply for up to $20 million a year, according to Tully. Only 15 other states were eligible for the grant.