Glenda Ritz calls Pence's preschool decision "bad for children"

Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today criticized Gov. Mike Pence for halting the state’s efforts to seek an $80 million federal preschool grant “without warning.”

“Whatever his motivation, one thing is clear: Pence’s about-face with little or no notice to those who had worked in concert with his administration on the grant application is bad for our state and our children,” Ritz said in a statement.

“The governor expressed concern about federal requirements that would have come with this money, but thus far has failed to provide any specifics,” she said.

Ritz wasn’t the first person to weigh in on Pence’s surprising decision. Reaction to his choice, which leaves $80 million in federal funds on the table, has been mixed.

Here’s a roundup of what people have said.

Ritz went on to lay out her view of the grant’s value:

“Here are the facts. First, the grant did not require a state or local match. Funds that we rejected will now be used by other states. Second, the funds would not have resulted in kindergarteners taking tests to qualify to enter kindergarten. But, third, we would finally have had the ability to ensure that our children come to Kindergarten ready to learn and these funds would have helped form the basis for their future educational attainment. We need high quality early childhood education.”

When Pence’s change of direction on the grant was first reported by Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully on Thursday, it shocked Indiana’s early education advocates. Chalkbeat quoted Stand For Children executive Director Justin Ohlemiller saying he was caught off guard by Pence’s decision:

“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.”

In a guest column for The Statehouse File on Friday, Pence argued the state should go its own way on preschool. Pence wrote:

“It’s important to note that many early learning programs across the country have not been successful over the years. On behalf of the children the pilot is designed to serve, it is imperative that Indiana get this right. Indiana’s program is based on parental choice and includes the flexibility and accountability needed to ensure children are in programs that get real results. “It is important not to allow the lure of federal grant dollars to define our state’s mission and programs. More federal dollars do not necessarily equal success, especially when those dollars come with requirements and conditions that will not help – and may even hinder – running a successful program of our own making. “An important part of our pre-K pilot is the requirement that we study the program so we understand what works and what doesn’t. I do not believe it is wise policy to expand our pre-K pilot before we have a chance to study and learn from the program.”

The state’s move to pass on the grant brought a flood of opinion over the weekend about why Pence made the move and whether it was the right decision.

The Associated Press wrote that social conservatives and tea party groups considered it a victory that Pence was persuaded not to work with the federal government on preschool. The AP’s Tom LoBianco wrote about efforts to scuttle the grant by Hoosiers Against Common Core’s co-founder Heather Crossin:

“Crossin is hardly a stalwart Pence supporter; her group lambasted the governor for formally withdrawing the state from Common Core education standards earlier this year, while replacing them with standards strikingly similar to the federal rules. And a little more than a week ago, her group chastised Pence for his creation of a “data czar” to oversee reams of government data, including student information. “Many similar groups, long considered Pence’s political base stemming to his years in Congress, have expressed frustration at his decision to seek an expansion of Medicaid using a state-run alternative. “But Wednesday they were cheering the governor.”

Earlier this month, Hoosiers Against Common Core described the grant as expanding “taxpayer funded day care.” When advocates complained that group’s lobbying cost the state $80 million that could have helped poor children prepare for kindergarten, it responded by arguing Indiana’s chances of winning the grant were far from certain. The group posted on its website:

“The truth is that the categories and eligible award amounts were determined based upon the state’s population of four-year-old children eligible for the program, nothing more. “The only thing that makes a state more likely to win is to agree to the 18 pages of federal requirements stipulated throughout the grant, such as mandating full day care, extensive testing, and data collection on children who are only four-years-old.”

The Indiana State Teachers Union, which is often critical of Pence, drew a direct line between the activism of Hoosiers Against Common Core and Pence’s decision. On its blog, ISTA wrote:

“Some have also speculated that the governor was concerned that by accepting the federal grant, the state’s preschool program couldn’t be folded into Indiana’s controversial school voucher program. Whatever the backdrop and underlying motivation, one thing is certain: thousands of Indiana’s neediest children will once again pay the price for loyalty to narrow political agendas.”

Over the weekend, the Indianapolis Star reported that the debate over the grant exposed a rift on the political right between those who are pushing hard for more preschool funding in the state and those who are skeptical of state-funded learning before kindergarten. The Star’s Robert King wrote:

“The governor also expressed concerns about unspecified ‘requirements and conditions’ associated with the federal grant that could hinder Indiana’s program. “But corporate supporters of preschool education say the state has plenty of resources at its disposal — including financial support from the private sector — to move forward more quickly. “‘Indiana has a unique, but urgent opportunity to seize the moment as the private and public sector are ready to take a bold step to educate our young people,'” said John Elliott, a spokesman for Kroger grocery chain. “‘We respectfully disagree with the governor’s decision not to pursue $80 million in federal funding and ask that he reconsider his decision,” Elliott said. “There are enough engaged stakeholders focused on this priority to help build upon the administration’s pilot program and ensure rapid, successful and measurable growth in early childhood programs.’ “On the other side of the issue are social conservative groups — another traditional base of political support for Pence. “His rejection of the federal grant was greeted warmly by American Family Association of Indiana, which is skeptical of the benefits of preschool programs and dubious of putting 4-year-olds into government programs.”

Some of Pence’s critics speculated that the decision was driven more by his presidential ambitions than by Indiana’s needs. (One of his potential primary opponents, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also was criticized for deciding not to apply for the same federal preschool grant.) The Indiana-based blogger Doug Masson wrote:

“The cynical mind, however, immediately jumps to Gov. Pence’s presidential ambitions. Even bearing in mind that our share of this federal money is coming out of our pockets anyway and will now be going to some other state instead, I think we can all agree that forgoing $80 million to improve the education of young Hoosiers is a small price to pay to ease the minds of Iowa and New Hampshire caucus and primary voters.”

The editorial board of the Indianapolis Star joined Pence’s critics, writing in an editorial over the weekend that the decision was “perplexing and disappointing.” It wrote:

“Mike Pence, once a skeptic about the value of early childhood education, has taken major steps forward on the issue in the past two years. He was beginning to lead on the issue in a way that no previous Indiana governor had shown. His sudden step back is a hard blow for the state. And worse, for its children and their families.”