Ritz and McCormick agree on Indiana’s need for more preschool — not on how much to spend

Most politicians and policymakers in Indiana agree that more kids should have access to good preschools — they just don’t agree on how to fund it.

So it goes for the the two candidates for state superintendent. Both Democrat incumbent Glenda Ritz and Republican Jennifer McCormick support making preschool available to more kids, but differ on how that should happen.

Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants.

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

The ambitious program would create more high-quality programs across the state as well as more seats in those programs. Ritz says the plan would ensure that students with the highest needs are ready for kindergarten and that more kids overall are able to benefit from preschool.

“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 at a press conference earlier this year. “The funds are there if the political will exists.”

McCormick, who is the superintendent of Yorktown schools near Muncie, takes a more conservative stance when it comes to funding and thinks the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to all Indiana four-year-olds.

“I’m just hoping (preschool funding) doesn’t come out of those K-12 monies,” she said. “I’m glad the conversation is happening, but I think we are going to have to be careful on how is that funded, what are those impacts on the local levels, such as facilities and partnerships that are already in those area schools with preschool programs. What data is out there to say are we getting the best bang for our buck?”

McCormick’s approach adheres more closely to what Indiana Republican leaders in the legislature have said they would support heading into the 2017 session. So far, lawmakers, such as Rep. Bob Behning and House Speaker Brian Bosma, both Indianapolis Republicans, have indicated interest in expanding the state’s current preschool pilot program, but have come out against a broader, more expensive plan like Ritz’s.

However, McCormick said at a recent debate in Fort Wayne that eventually she wants to have a universal access program by 2020, the same end-goal as Ritz.

The current pilot program awards preschool scholarships to needy families using a lottery. The program is funded by the state and is supplemented in Indianapolis by a separate program that uses money from the city, businesses and private foundations. Both programs are in high demand. Fewer than half of the 4,200 poor families in Marion County who applied this year are expected to win preschool scholarships.

The current state program covers preschool for 4-year-olds but McCormick said she thinks Indiana should also create programs for kids who are even younger since many language problems and other issues are easier to address with early intervention.

“Are we being reactive or proactive?” McCormick said. “(We need to) do our homework on the root causes of some of the issues we are seeing.”

Both Ritz and McCormick agree that the state should pursue all opportunities for additional federal funding.

In 2014, Gov. Mike Pence faced heavy criticism for rejecting a grant that could have brought up to $80 million to the state’s preschool efforts. Pence, whose conservative fiscal positions helped land him a spot on Donald Trump’s presidential ticket as his running mate, argued at the time that he was worried that Obama administration had attached too many strings to the money.

He has since reversed course, expressing interest in new federal grants.

“That Gov. Pence did not accept money from the federal government was a huge mistake, which I think at the very end of his term he was starting to rectify,” Ritz said. “But you know, you have two or three years of kids that are never going to be that age again that missed out.”

To learn more about preschool in Indiana, check out these stories:

This story has been updated to reflect new details on McCormick’s stance on universal preschool access.