State preschool pilot will launch in January, Pence says

A new state preschool pilot program in Marion County should get off the ground in January, although it might start out by serving a small number of students.

Gov. Mike Pence hailed the pilot, which he said would launch in January in four of the five counties that were selected to begin offering state aid to pay preschool tuition for poor children, at a day-long conference for state and and local officials to plan the program.

Pence praised lawmakers in both parties for ultimately supporting a preschool bill that was one of his top legislative priorities after a long and arduous debate in the legislature earlier this year. At one point, the bill appeared dead, but Pence worked with legislative leaders to revive it.

When students begin receiving aid next year, it will mark the first time in Indiana history the state has directly supported preschool tuition, removing Indiana from a list of just nine states that have yet to fund preschool.

“There is work to be done today,” he said proudly. “We’ve brought together people with vast experience in this area.”

The $10 million program allows for 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 of 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 the five counties. It is only limited by budget. There is no cap on the number of participants.

“There is a great deal of urgency I have to get these dollars out first and foremost to help the kids who need them,” Pence said.

Pence added that he did not expect to lead an effort to expand the program in the next two-year budget, which lawmakers will begin crafting in January, to allow time for the pilot program to be put in place and for an evaluation of it effectiveness to be undertaken.

“I want to be faithful to the nature of this program,” he said. “This is a pilot program. This was a heavy lift to get the first ever funding for pre-K education through the General Assembly. the agreement was it would be a pilot and we will take our time.”

Pence also declined comment on a move by Democrats on the Indianapolis City-County Council to block a separate $50 million preschool expansion proposal offered by his fellow Republican, Mayor Greg Ballard. Among the reasons the Democrats cited for shelving any city-led preschool program until at least 2016 was the opportunity for poor children to enroll instead in the state pilot program.

“I wouldn’t want to comment on what local government leaders are deciding in any city in Indiana,” Pence said.