Council approves funding for Indianapolis preschool program

Indianapolis’ hotly debated preschool program cleared its final hurdle Monday when the City-County Council approved spending $4.2 million to send 1,000 poor children to high-quality preschools later this year.

Paying for the program was the final decision needed to put into action what is expected to be a five-year program. The vote was 19-10, with support coming from both Democrats and Republicans in a standing-room only crowd at the Indianapolis City-County Building.

“While this is not a crime bill, it’s part of the way to level the playing field so everyone has the chance to succeed,” said Republican Councilman Jeff Miller. “We must do this, and we are doing this for the kids that need it the most.”

Mayor Greg Ballard, who first proposed the program last summer and signed an ordinance approving its basic framework in December, cheered the bipartisan effort in a statement. The vote came after months of negotiation between Ballard, a Republican, and Democrats who control the Council about how to fund the program and who it should serve.

They ended up with a compromise: the program is slightly smaller than first pitched and serves needier children, according to Council Vice President John Barth, who successfully shepherded the plan through the Council when its fate was in jeopardy.

“Tonight’s vote is a perfect example of the progress that is made when all parties work together to do what’s best for our city,” Ballard said. “Thanks to the priority this issue has been given, thousands of Indianapolis children will have access to high-quality preschool that will provide a solid start in their education.”

The city will pay for the program using a variety of sources. Tapping into the a fiscal stability fund will net $2 million, with $500,000 of that coming from interest. Another $1.7 million that was saved through a change to the homestead tax credit program and $500,000 will come from county option income tax, according to the city’s Office of Education Innovation.

The city’s investment is estimated at $20 million over five years. Another $20 million is expected to be raised by corporate and philanthropic donors.

Those who voted against the program said they didn’t think the city could afford to fund preschool and argued education was the state’s responsibility.

“I don’t think anyone in here has argued against the value of education,” said Democrat Councilwoman Angela Mansfield. “It would be great if we had excess funds. In my district there is a severe lack of sidewalks and streetlights. It doesn’t make sense to be spending money on preschool when we’re not meeting the needs we’re required to as a city.”

But parent Tamika Bennett, who moved to Indianapolis from Birmingham, Ala. seven years ago, said she’d rather see the city take an opportunity to invest in education, even if it’s not technically its job.

“Yes, there are potholes,” Bennett said. “I’m sick of them. If I had to place my money on anything, it would be my kids. You haven’t created better infrastructure in the seven years I’ve been here. I really don’t think I want to wait around another seven years for you to do that.”

Councilman Zach Adamson, a Democrat, said the state’s meager investment in a statewide preschool pilot program shouldn’t be the reason the Council lets an opportunity go by to educate kids.

“While this is the job of the state. it is too important to wave our hands in the air and wait for them to come around,” Adamson said. “It doesn’t solve every problem but it’s a great start.”

Ballard first proposed the preschool program last year as part of an initiative to reduce crime across the city. The Council also voted Monday to fund hiring 155 more police officers.

Democrat Councilman Stephen Clay, who voted against the program said he doesn’t believe that investing in preschool will help solve the city’s crime problem.

“What we have is a right now problem,” Clay said. “The real question becomes if we pass this tonight, is anyone here going to feel safer?”

But others said the city will see long term benefits from paying for preschool. Several studies have shown kids who attend high quality preschool are less likely to commit crimes or drop out of school as teenagers.

“It’s going to take awhile,” said Republican Councilwoman Janice McHenry. “By the time these children get into their high school years, we will see a difference.”

Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said tonight’s decision wouldn’t have been possible without the financial backing of the business and philanthropic communities, which have committed to raise about half the cost of the five-year program. He said Eli Lilly and Co.’s support kept the program alive when it was in doubt last year.

“We are thrilled for children and for their families, and we are exceedingly grateful to the members of our community,” Kloth said. “This would not have been possible without their collective effort. I’m humbled to have been a part of it alongside them.”