Surprise! Pence is interested in federal preschool funding afterall

Less than two years after Gov. Mike Pence shocked Indiana by rejecting $80 million in federal preschool funding, he’s reversing course.

Pence told federal authorities in a letter Thursday that he is interested in getting federal funds to expand the state’s fledgling preschool pilot program, which along with extra funds from Marion County currently serves just 2,300 children in five counties.

“I am also pleased to inform you that the pilot program is going extremely well, and we are encouraged by the support and interest it has received at the local level,” Pence wrote in the letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Secretary Sylvia Burwell. “I would sincerely appreciate it if you would let us know when the application will be available for the Preschool Development Grants program.”

The letter marks a stark reversal for Pence, who faced strong criticism for failing to apply for a “development grant” in 2014. Indiana was a top federal priority with a chance to win as much as $20 million a year in grant funding. At the last minute, Pence decided not to apply for the grant in order to avoid “federal intrusion.”

Democrats were quick to point out that Pence’s letter expressing interest in federal funding is an about-face for the governor. Both the head of the Indiana Democratic Party, John Zody, and State Superintendent Glenda Ritz released statements calling the letter “showboating.”

“Sadly, we have been here before with the Governor,” Ritz said in a statement. “Over two years ago when the Governor ‘expressed interest’ in seeking pre-K funding, the Department spent hundreds of hours applying for $80 million in federal funding only to have the Governor change his mind and cancel the application at the last minute.”

Sen. Jean Breaux of Indianapolis, the assistant minority leader in the Indiana Senate, said the Democratic caucus would support increased preschool funding. But she said Pence’s letter is a political move to show support for preschool during an election year.

“The timing is a bit suspect,” she said. “Particularly when he turned down millions of dollars in federal funding during a bid-year when Indiana could’ve had money for pre-K.”

Although Pence didn’t pursue federal funding, he advocated for the first state program to provide direct aid for preschool, a small pilot that began in 2015.

The state spends $10 million per year on the pilot program, which serves children in five counties. In Marion County, local and private contributions increase the number of vouchers, but demand still exceeds funding and slots are granted by lottery. Fewer than half the 4,200 Marion County children who applied for vouchers this year are expected to win them.

Preschool advocates told Chalkbeat in April that they were planning to lobby for a significant increase in state preschool funding.

“We’ve have learned a lot from the pilot,” said Andrew Cullen, the vice president of public policy for the United Way of Central Indiana. “That’s what the pilot was there for, so it’s time now to talk significantly about an expansion.”