There is perhaps more bipartisan support in Indiana for preschool aid than any other education issue, but one key group remains unconvinced that it should expand — the legislature.
That became increasingly clear today when a coalition of business and community groups called on legislators during a meeting of an interim fiscal policy committee to support a plan to expand the state’s preschool pilot program by adding in more state money. An expanded program could support more children to attend more preschools in more counties and help the five counties where the pilot is now — including Marion County — to meet high demand.
The state’s preschool tuition support pilot program, along with a similar program instituted by the city of Indianapolis, “have demonstrated significant demand for high-quality preschool,” said Jay Geshay of the United Way of Central Indiana. “The success of this program makes it clear to us that it’s time to expand.”
But Republicans on the committee are still unsure of the benefits to be gained from state-funded preschool.
“If we’re going to put X number of dollars into preschool, we’re not putting it somewhere else,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers. “So what’s the argument to be made about why to make the investment here?”
The proposal would add more state money to pay preschool tuition for poor children and remove requirements that philanthropic groups and business match preschool funding. It would also raise the family income limit to about $44,900 from about $30,000 now, making more children eligible. The proposal did not come with an estimate for how much more it would cost the state.
Indiana lawmakers have long hesitated — or been downright opposed — to ponying up state money for preschool. In 2014, only a last-minute resurrection of a controversial bill made possible the current pilot program, and the $10 million to support it. That took Indiana off a list of just 10 states at the time that provided no direct aid for poor children to attend preschool.
The coalition of preschool advocates, who presented some details of their plan earlier this summer, said there is plenty of data to support the idea that preschool helps kids academically and socially. The presentation included data suggesting that every dollar Indiana spends on preschool would return four times as much in future savings. Preschool reduces the need for some special education, school remediation and juvenile justice expenses, the report said.
“Many kids enter kindergarten without knowing any letters or numbers,” said Connie Bond Stuart, the regional president for PNC Bank and board chair for the United Way of Central Indiana. “They have a difficult time ever catching up.”
Stuart and others said they were asking just for an expansion of what already exists, rather than a bolder move toward a universal state program, which is what state Superintendent Glenda Ritz has proposed.
Still, lawmakers remained unconvinced.
Some referenced a study from Tennessee last year that stunned preschool advocates with its findings that the state’s voluntary preschool program actually scored worse on academic and behavioral measures by third grade. Other studies show high quality preschool leads to long term benefits, such as avoiding jail, higher pay and more stable marriages, later in life.
Some lawmakers also argued the pilot needs more time to show results in Indiana.
“I don’t think we can even measure that yet,” said Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Muncie. “I can’t with a straight face tell anybody that we have a successful program yet.”
There are some important things to keep in mind before trying to compare Indiana and Tennessee, said Amanda Lopez, a consultant who worked on the coalition’s report. Indiana only awards funding to providers that have earned a level 3 or 4 rating on the state’s four-step Paths to Quality scale. That means the programs meet safety standards and have an academic program.
“The quality standards that Tennessee has are not the same as Indiana’s,” Lopez said. “Tennessee expanded their statewide pre-K program very quickly, where the infrastructure wasn’t really in place … They’re also funded at a much lower rate than in Indiana.”
After the meeting, Michael O’Connor, public affairs manager for Eli Lilly and an Indianapolis Public Schools Board member, said lawmakers need to consider the long-term, even if it seems costly now.
“The legislative officials have to sometimes step outside the boundaries of normal government decision-making,” O’Connor said. “What we’re asking the state to do is to look at this as a an investment.”