Ballard hopes big money leads more kids to better preschools

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s plan to spend $50 million for preschool for the city’s poorest children will tackle two issues: making sure 1,300 more children can afford to enroll and growing the number quality of centers in the city.

“Our vision is for every child in Indianapolis to have access to a voluntary, high-quality early childhood education that prepares him or her for a successful academic career and success in life,” according to the mayor’s proposal.

The city will invest $25 million in tax dollars, and expects to raise an additional $25 million in matching and philanthropic support, to support the plan.

The first scholarships are expected to be awarded to students in 2015-16.

Momentum for expanding access to early education in Indiana has picked up significantly within the last year after more than a decade of relatively little meaningful change.

Still, the mayor’s office estimates that between 3,000 and 6,000 more four-year-olds could enroll in preschool if they could afford it and there were seats in quality centers in Marion County.

Gov. Mike Pence was the champion of a bill that passed the legislature this year offering direct aid for poor children to attend preschool for the first time in state history. Indiana will no longer be among 10 states with no state support for early education when a pilot program launches in 2015. Marion County, along with four other Indiana counties, were selected to be part of the program, which will provide tuition support to between 1,000 and 4,000 four-year-olds starting next year.

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee also has been a strong preschool advocate, telling the school board this summer that he believes the district could offer universal preschool to four-year-olds within five years or sooner. The district also has increased access to its free preschool program over the last two years.

And new partnerships between private, high-quality preschool providers, such as an agreement by Day Nursery Association to offer preschool at Indianapolis charter schools, could offer families even more options.

Making preschool affordable

Most of the funds will be directed toward making sure more families can afford to send their children to preschool.

The city expects that $8 million annually for the next five years in public and private money will support student preschool tuition. The scholarships — $6,800 for full day programs and $3,400 for half day programs — will serve about 1,300 children.

The public funds will come from eliminating the homestead tax credit, which Ballard has advocated for since 2012. Eliminating the credit is expected to bring in more than $7 million annually to the city.

The mayor’s office estimates that the average high-quality preschool program costs between $4,700 and about $7,000 per year. Using the federal standard that identifies families of four making less than $24,000 annually as impoverished, sending a child to preschool would eat up at least 20 percent of that family’s annual income.

Indianapolis will create its own preschool scholarship program to support a family of four making up to $44,400 annually. United Way will work with preschools and school districts to create the scholarship program.

Increasing access to quality programs

The city also hopes to funnel $10 million in public and private funds to access the lack of high-quality preschool providers in Indianapolis.

The investment by the city will help launch new high quality preschools and assist others improve their ratings.

Marion County has nearly 800 licensed preschools, most of which are low rated. Only 15 percent of those providers are ranked high enough by Indiana’s rating system to qualify for the mayor’s program today. Nearly half aren’t even enrolled in the state program that rates preschools.

Ballard envisions helping those schools to get better rating scores, with grants for improvements to their buildings to promote health and safety, and support to establish curriculum for student learning.

While Indianapolis children won’t receive preschool scholarships until 2015, the United Way of Central Indiana, a social services agency charged with designing and overseeing the plan, will spend the next several months working with consultants and the mayor’s office to convene public meetings, raise private money and develop a grant process.

The City-County Council also needs to consider and vote on the mayor’s proposal.