Lilly invests $22.5 million to boost preschool in Indiana

Lilly Endowment Inc. announced today it will spend $22.5 million to help expand or open more high-quality preschools across Indiana.

Part of the goal is to prepare the state, which will launch a small preschool program in five counties in January, in hopes it will soon expand public support of early learning.

The private philanthropy group, founded by executives of Indianapolis’ pharmaceutical giant, will give $20 million to Early Learning Indiana, formerly known as Day Nursery Association, to create more spots in high quality preschools around the state. Another $2 million will go to United Way of Central Indiana to improve preschool options just in Indianapolis and its surrounding counties.

“These new grants extend and deepen the Endowment’s commitment to improve the quality of early childhood education across Indiana,” Sara Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education, said in a statement. “We know that the children who participate in these high-quality programs will have brighter, more successful futures. Indiana will be better because of it.”

The five-year grant comes at a time when there is growing interest in investing public dollars in preschool. Earlier this year Gov. Mike Pence won a hard-fought battle to established Indiana’s first-ever preschool program, offering direct state aid as tuition support for poor children. In Marion County, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is pushing for a $50 million public-private preschool program but has struggled to win Democratic support.

“There are all these efforts that are going on that we want to align with,” said Early Learning Indiana president Ted Maple. “The city and state want to invest in high-quality early learning. This project is about ensuring those investments are well-spent.”

Eli Lilly and Co. has already rallied around Ballard’s effort, pledging to bring $10 million from the business community, starting with $2 million of its own money, if city leaders can agree on how to fund the program, which stalled last month.

The new grant, unlike Ballard’s plan and the statewide pilot, does not provide direct scholarship support to families. The goal, instead, is to grow the number of high quality preschools for parents to choose by directing money to make existing preschools better, support the opening of new high quality preschools, engage parents to learn about preschool and train good preschool teachers. The grant aims to help 400 Indiana preschools improve their ratings on Indiana’s four-step Paths to Quality preschool rating system.

Few Indiana preschools have been rated high quality by earning a 3 or 4 on the Paths to Quality scale. In Indianapolis, for example, only 15 percent of the city’s nearly 800 providers currently have been rated that high.

Early Learning Indiana, which operates 10 preschool centers in Indianapolis along with the state’s largest childcare referral agency Child Care Answers, hasn’t yet chosen the areas of the state where it will invest. Maple said the first six months of the grant will be spent on researching and finding willing partners.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a grantee of the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation.)