After uncertainty, Ballard's preschool plan passes easily

More than 1,000 poor Indianapolis children will have access to high-quality preschool starting in 2016 after an Indianapolis City-County Council vote tonight to approve a $40 million public-private partnership between the city, business and philanthropic leaders.

The solid 19-8 vote margin to approve a compromise between Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and council Democrats follows nearly six months of debate in the city about how to pay for it. The vote was uncertain enough that Ballard led a rally at Indianapolis City Market earlier today to whip up support before the meeting.

Ballard, who first proposed a similar plan in July as part of his crime prevention plan, called the vote “historic.”

“The city of Indianapolis today took a major step forward becoming a place where all children have the tools to succeed,” Ballard said in a statement immediately following the vote. “Tonight’s bipartisan approval … will help prepare many Indy children for a brighter economic future and ultimately make Indy a safer city by addressing the root causes of poverty and violence in our community.”

It hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point.

Ballard’s plan was resisted by City-County Council Democrats soon after it was proposed. The Democrats said Ballard’s preferred funding mechanism — eliminating the local homestead tax credit — would hurt Indianapolis Public Schools and other Marion County schools.

After his fellow Democrats effectively killed the plan, Council Vice President John Barth helped resurrect it by meeting with the mayor’s office and business leaders to forge a compromise. That compromise, which doesn’t touch the local homestead tax credit as a funding source, unanimously passed a Council committee last month.

Barth, who shepherded the council through a lengthy debate over the issue where nearly every council member present voiced their opinions, said he was pleasantly surprised at the final vote tally and was expecting it to be closer.

“I’m just thrilled,” Barth said. “I think the debate helped us pull some people over to the ‘yes’ side and that’s great.”

Council members debated in front of a packed house of supporters, many who were wearing bright blue tee-shirts passed out at the mayor’s rally earlier in the evening.

There were two key sticking points for council members from both sides of the aisle: the first being whether the city should fund education, with some arguing the state is solely responsible for doing so. The second concern was about spending city money on programs, like preschool, aimed at long-term challenges rather than addressing crime and poverty right now.

Councilman Ben Hunter, a Republican who supported the preschool plan, said he understands the argument that the state should pay for preschool. But since it’s only happening on a small scale with the new preschool pilot, he said the city can’t wait around.

“This is what big cities do,” Hunter said. “They solve their own problems. We’re going to take care of our children. We need to continue to close the gap to prove to the state that we are going to solve our issues.”

Councilwoman Virginia Cain, a Republican, said she couldn’t support the proposal because the city shouldn’t add programs when it can’t support its existing responsibilities like public safety, public works and animal control.

“We need to make Indianapolis more safe now,” Cain said. “I had to pull teeth to get one road repaired. We’re not even getting what we should be doing done efficiently. I can’t be for this.”

The debate over Indianapolis’ preschool plan is far from over. The Council will take up the matter of how to fund the program early next year, and several Republicans said tonight they would reverse their support over the plan if money was taken out of the city’s public safety fund. Barth said there are “no plans to tap into any public safety money.”

“Not one cent of this money should come from (police),” said Republican Councilman Aaron Freeman. “Not one cent should come from the public safety tax. I will be a ‘no’ vote at that point. We should find another mechanism to fund this outside of that.”

For now, city leaders who backed the plan and other advocates are celebrating.

“Tonight is an historic night and a huge victory for thousands of low-income children, families and the working poor,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Jason Kloth. “We could not be happier for them.”