Glenda Ritz says Indiana can afford preschool for all students

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today announced that she plans to make a strong push for the legislature in 2017 to make preschool available to all Indiana kids before they start kindergarten — and she said there’s plenty of money available to do it.

“The department will make high quality pre-K available within the boundaries of every school corporation within the state of Indiana by 2020,” Ritz said. “The funds are there if the political will exists.”

Ritz said more details will be coming about her proposal soon. It will include a public-private partnership, modeled after programs in New Jersey and other states, she said. The plan would cost the state about $150 million per year, which is less than one percent of the state’s annual budget, Ritz said. Funds could come from not just state money, but federal grants as well as private contributions.

READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

Indiana Democrats, and some Republicans, have long lobbied for better access to preschool, especially for the state’s poorest children.

“Indiana cannot have a system of high quality when we have students that come to school that are unready to learn,” Ritz said. “We cannot have a system of equity when some students are exposed to early childhood education while many of poorest and neediest are not.”

And Hoosiers should not have to wait long to participate, she said. Her plan would have Indiana take what she called a “side-by-side” approach — creating more preschool spots at the same time it helps improve existing programs so they meet the highest state standards for early childhood education. Top-rated preschools are required to have strong educational and safety components as well as childcare. In Ritz’s vision, the work would be done in partnership with other state agencies, such as the state health department and the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

Ritz’s announcement comes at the heels of a call by Gov. Mike Pence last week for federal funds to support the state’s current preschool pilot program, which serves about 1,585 kids in five counties.

The move was a major reversal for Pence, who faced heavy criticism in 2014 when he ordered state officials to stop work on a grant application that could have brought Indiana up to $80 million in federal money to support preschool. At the time, he said he feared the federal money would come with too many strings attached and intrude into the state’s decision-making about its preschool program.

Preschool scholarships, which are awarded to needy families by a lottery under the state’s pilot, have seen high demand. In Indianapolis, additional scholarship money from the city, businesses and private foundations made extra scholarships available to about 800 more kids across the county.

Even so, fewer than half of the 4,200 poor families in Marion County who applied this year are expected to win scholarships to pay their preschool tuition.

Ritz said her plan would move away from the current scholarship model and instead create a system where the school district would perhaps be the distributor of funding to each preschool program.

Ritz’s 2017 legislative agenda also includes plans to:

Find more details on the Indiana Department of Education’s website.