The basics of early childhood education in Indiana: A new era begins

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

In 2011, Indiana’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels made education a major focus of his legislative agenda, unveiling four major bills that tackled many education hot buttons — teachers, unions, charter schools, and vouchers. But, as advocates quickly pointed out, Daniels had overlooked another favored policy: early childhood education.

Proponents of early childhood education argue there is strong evidence that improved early learning can have long term benefits for children, making it more likely they will succeed in school and in life.

But Daniels and his aides continued not to give attention to early childhood even amid complaints, arguing at the time that the state simply didn’t have the money to offer state aid to reduce the cost of education options for young children.

Since then, Indiana has begun to take small steps toward improving preschool. A small pilot program to pay for preschool for poor children in five counties began in 2015, meaning the Hoosier state was no longer one of nine that spent no state dollars for direct aid to help children attend preschool. While two-thirds of states require children to attend kindergarten, Indiana still has not budged to make school attendance mandatory before age 7, or first grade.

As a result, far fewer children in the state attend preschool than in other states. Indiana in 2011 had about 34,000 kids attending public preschools through federal programs. That’s only about 20 percent of preschool-aged children. By comparison, that percentage in states that have prioritized preschool, like Oklahoma and West Virginia, was more than 70 percent.

But there are signs of a new attitude toward early childhood education.

Besides the pilot program, the state has added more aid to support school districts that offer kindergarten since 2011, expanding access for those who voluntarily enroll their children. In Indianapolis, Mayor Greg Ballard pushed through a city-supported preschool program and new Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has pledged to support the expansion of the district’s preschool offerings.

Here’s a look at some of the main areas undergoing change:

Kindergarten expansion

In 2011, about 14 percent of Indiana children did not start school until first grade, while most states required compulsory attendance of kindergarten. In the Midwest, Illinois was the only other state that did not require kindergarten attendance.

Districts that did offer kindergarten generally only offered half-day programs. Some charged parents tuition for a second half-day if they preferred their child to attend kindergarten for a full school day. Other districts tapped a state grant program to offer full-day kindergarten. And a third group made it a priority to fund a full-day program on their own.

But in 2012, Daniels moved to address kindergarten by announcing his support for a plan to make full-day kindergarten available to any families that wanted it for free.

Daniels said the state’s economy was recovering from the 2008 economic recession and that tax collections had brought an unexpected surplus. He proposed doubling the state support for full-day kindergarten to $190 million. A legislative bill to accomplish that also added a prohibition blocking school districts from charging tuition for kindergarten. After the bill passed, full-day kindergarten enrollment jumped by 19 percent to more than 66,000 children.

Some school districts still expressed concern about the costs, which were covered in the form of grants, rather than through the state’s school funding formula. The grant program, districts argued, was more vulnerable to being reduced or eliminated in the biennial budget-making process than the school funding formula. Districts also asked for per-pupil funding for kindergarten to be equalized with the per pupil aid schools receive for older children. State aid for a student in kindergarten is half the among for those in grades 1 to 12.

Even with gains in kindergarten in 2012, advocates for early learning also pointed out that Indiana continued to offer no state aid for preschool. But an effort to change that came the following year.

Stronger health and safety standards
While Indiana spends no money to directly support preschool, the U.S. Department of Education spends $172 million on government vouchers to Hoosier families each year to help pay for preschool. But those vouchers have very few requirements attached. Recipients can spend them on most preschools in the state, and regulation has traditionally been lax. Before 2012, the state had few requirements, or even standards of health and safety, for preschools that receive vouchers.

An Indianapolis Star series in 2013 found that at least 21 children had died between 2009 and 2013 in day cares and preschools, including unlicensed centers and homes. The series found Indiana had more than 150,000 children attending 4,000 centers, costing the state $2.5 million to license and inspect them. About 660 of those centers were unlicensed and religiously affiliated, with even fewer health, safety and education requirements.

In 2013, the Indiana legislature addressed some of the quality concerns, passing a bill requiring day care centers to have discipline policies and meet basic health and safety standards to receive federal funds. The centers also were required to conduct national background checks on paid and volunteer workers.

A separate effort to offer tuition support to help low income children attend preschool stalled in 2013, however.

Republicans in the Indiana House put the creation of a state-funded preschool pilot program among their top agenda items. A bill authored by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee, had the support of House speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

The bill proposed a pilot program to support preschool tuition for about 1,000 high-poverty children in five counties at an estimated cost of $7 million annually. The program aimed to establish whether the programs aided the students academically. Behning said if the program demonstrated that students benefited, the state could consider expanding it to more students in the future.

The bill quickly passed the House, with a strong 93-6 vote in favor. But it soon ran into trouble in the Senate, where the education committee chairman, Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said only three of 12 members of the committee favored the bill when he polled them.

The Senate dropped the pilot program, rewriting the bill to establish a small $2 million grant program instead.

Kruse said the potential cost of the pilot program, were it to expand, was a concern for the committee, which felt preschool was not among the state’s highest education priorities. Early education advocates came away from the 2013 legislative session discouraged that the promising move toward state aid for preschool had failed.

Preschool finally passes
In late 2013, the idea of state aid for preschool got an important new ally in Pence, Daniels’ Republican successor. Pence proclaimed preschool to be among his highest priorities for the 2014 legislative session.

But at first, legislators did not join him. Halfway through the legislative session, the bill to create a preschool pilot seemed dead. But Pence worked behind the scenes with legislative leaders to win approval for a bill to establish the state’s first program to offer state-paid tuition support to poor children who attend preschool.

Lawmakers placed the program in the budget of the Family and Social Services Administration and allowed the agency to keep up to $10 million Pence had ordered it to cut due to poor revenue projections so it could use that money to fund the program. The bill allowed preschool providers or Family and Social Services Administration to match another $5 million in grants or private contributions. The entire program, therefore, could spend $15 million in public and private money on tuition support for children to attend preschools.

The bill established an income eligibility limit for a family four to $30,289 annually. For families, tuition aid would range between $2,500 and $6,800 a year depending on income. The pilot could serve as many as 4,000 four-year-olds in five counties. It is only limited by budget. There is no cap on the number of participants. Among the provisions that were added to the bill was a requirement that parents of children in the program agree their preschools’ parental involvement requirements.

The program is expected to launch in January in Marion County and four other counties.

Separately, praise for Pence’s preschool win was muted in late 2014 by a controversy around his decision not to apply for up to $80 million in federal aid for preschool, which shocked some of his preschool allies. Pence said he wanted to avoid federal intrusion into the state’s preschool efforts.

Expansion in Indianapolis

Separately from the state debate over preschool, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard announced his plan for the city to invest $25 million over five years to support preschool for poor children. With private matching dollars, the entire program would spend $50 million on preschool in the city.

But Democrats on the City-County Council balked at the mayor’s plan to eliminate a tax credit to raise money to fund the preschool program, which they said would cost school districts money. Ultimately a compromise was worked out and a slimmed down program was approved in early 2015.

When the program debuted in the summer, demand for spots was huge.

Some of the state’s top preschool advocates and experts say several practical hurdles stand in the way of a wider expansion of preschool. For example, they say there simply aren’t enough high-quality preschools — and adding more will depend heavily on the state’s ability to attract quality preschool teachers, train them effectively and keep them in the workforce.

-Updated December 2015