$50 million preschool push a centerpiece of Ballard's plan to cut crime

Mayor Greg Ballard today announced major new education initiatives aimed in part at combating an upswing in violence in Indianapolis, most notably a $50 million, five-year public-private effort to expand preschool for poor children.

The city will contribute half that amount — $25 million in tax dollars — to efforts both to pay tuition for children who cannot afford to attend highly-rated preschools and to help more preschools reach a high quality rating.

The new push from the city aims to transform the city’s lagging preschool offerings — less than one in six of 800 licensed centers meet the state’s highest quality standards — and put 1,300 more children in formal learning programs before kindergarten.

Separately, Ballard’s office will support a study of factors that push kids out of school: expulsion, suspension and dropouts. Experts say serious trouble in school is often a warning sign that children could face legal trouble and other problems later in life.

Ballard’s plan would expand preschool in 2015-16 just as a new statewide pilot program, also aimed at paying tuition for poor children to attend preschool, is scheduled to begin.

That program was created by the legislature in March, but only after it was revived by a push from Gov. Mike Pence after some lawmakers sought to shelve it. The state program offers $10 million preschool tuition support for about 1,000 children in five counties, including Marion County. When the program launches it will remove Indiana from a list of just 10 states that currently offer no direct state aid to help poor children attend preschool.

At the same time, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is rapidly expanding the district’s preschool offerings for four year olds. Ferebee has said he hopes to make the program available to all IPS four year olds in no more than five years.

The Your Life Matters task force, named in June to connect community groups with troubled youth, will lead the study, examining questions such as why some schools have higher rates of serious discipline or dropouts, how children who misbehave can be kept in school and why disparities exist among schools and between racial groups.

The goal is for the task force to present findings to a legislative study committee that will meet later this year to explore whether there is a need for changes in state law on student discipline.

In March, federal education data showed a huge number of Indiana’s black boys — more than one in four statewide — were suspended in the 2011-12 school year, second only to Wisconsin nationally. By comparison, 11 percent of Latino boys and 9 percent of white boys were suspended that year.

Last year’s 146 murders in the city were an eight-year high and 2014 is on about the same pace. The victims include police officer Perry Renn, who was killed earlier this month.