Indy business leaders promise to fight for preschool for more kids

Just two years ago, Indiana finally became the 42nd state to offer direct state aid for preschool tuition to poor children, and business leaders said today they are lining up behind a big push to enroll even more children.

A group of companies and community organizations announced a campaign, “All IN 4 Pre-K” aimed at raising awareness of the need for quality preschool and urging lawmakers to back their plan for a bigger state program.

“The reality remains too few students have access to high quality pre-K in our state,” said United Way CEO Ann Murtlow. “Thousands of children remain unserved because their parents can’t afford the cost of quality programs and they were unsuccessful in the limited lottery.”

In 2014, Gov. Mike Pence helped push through a small pilot program in five counties. Preschool advocates celebrated, and have pushed ever since for the state to spend more money on preschool. But expansion efforts have so far fallen flat.

The group gathered today at a Early Learning Indiana-run preschool just north of downtown promised a big push to make it happen this time when the Indiana General Assembly returns for the 2017 session in January.

Partners will “encourage the General Assembly to take bold action to expand preschool in a targeted way that focuses on low-income kids and high quality programs,” Murtlow said.

Local business and civic leaders join forces to push for an expansion of preschool options for Hoosier families through lobbying efforts and the launch of the “All IN 4 Pre-K” awareness campaign. (Meghan Mangrum)

Mutlow and others stopped short of calling for universal preschool that would enroll any Hoosier child for free. Democratic candidate for governor John Gregg and Glenda Ritz, the state superintendent, have called for universal preschool and argued the state can afford it, even at a cost of as much as $150 million.

The Republican candidate for governor, Eric Holcomb, also voiced support for expanded preschool when he was nominated by the Indiana GOP last month.

But concerns from Republican legislators, who dominate both houses of the Indiana legislature, that the program could prove even more costly in the long run, and some skepticism about the long-term value of state-funded preschool, have lowered expectations that such a program could win enough support to pass.

There are is space for as many as 3,000 more children in highly-rated preschools, Murtlow said, that have been gone unfilled because families cannot afford the cost.

During today’s announcement, retiring Eli Lilly and Company CEO John Lechleiter and his wife Sarah pledged a $5 million gift to be matched with another $5 million from the company to support preschool for poor children. Some of the money will be used for direct scholarships to students to help fill empty spaces in highly rated preschools. The money will also fund efforts to help those preschools expand to serve even more students.

After the state’s pilot program, On My Way Pre-K, was launched, the city of Indianapolis launched it’s own program the following year. Both of those programs have attracted far more applicants than scholarships available.