As pre-K expands in Indiana, slow sign-ups lead to millions in leftover state funding

Indiana expects to leave about $6 million in state funding for pre-Kindergarten untouched this year due to a slower-than-hoped expansion, according to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

With last year’s pre-K expansion into 15 new counties, the state estimated it could serve about 4,000 children from low-income families. So far, only about 3,000 have signed up, which officials chalk up to the challenge of introducing a new program in rural counties, where enrollment is lower. Pre-K providers also blame a complicated sign-up process for deterring interested families.

“We’re confident that we can serve more kids next year,” said Nicole Norvell, director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.

Indiana set aside $22 million this year for the pilot program, known as On My Way Pre-K, to subsidize costs for low-income families. On My Way Pre-K also taps federal Child Care Development Fund money. Norvell estimated On My Way Pre-K will use about $14 million federal dollars and more than $15 million in state dollars this year.

Last year, before the expansion fully launched, the state estimated it had almost $9 million left over.

Norvell said the leftover state funds can still be used for On My Way Pre-K in future years.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle characterized the issue of On My Way Pre-K not filling all of its seats as a hitch in procedures and rollout, rather than stemming from a lack of need or problems with the program itself.

“Is it slightly concerning? Yeah, but I’m not laying the blame anywhere,” said Senate education leader Jeff Raatz, R-Centerville. “We just gotta get it out there. It’s not been around long enough. I think we’re in good shape.”

Advocates and lawmakers are closely watching the state’s first long-awaited steps into investing in pre-K. While supporters want to make On My Way Pre-K widely available to children across the state, they are also careful to push for Indiana to maintain a high-quality program, in the hopes that the initial pilot years will show positive outcomes for families and children.

While this year seemed ripe for advocates to call for further expansion of the program, the state legislature appears poised to hold back from increasing pre-K dollars. Gov. Eric Holcomb called for the state to serve an additional 500 children in each of the next two years with the same level of funding.

Lawmakers are proposing ways to increase access to pre-K within its current spending limits, such as making it available statewide instead of by county or adding some flexibility within income requirements.

Another proposal seeks to address the limitations of a requirement that parents are working or in school in order for their children to receive pre-K vouchers, by making allowances for families who have parents with disabilities or grandparents as the primary caretakers.

Advocates say the need is there: Early Learning Indiana estimates that Indiana has about 16,000 4-year-olds in need of care whose families meet the income eligibility for On My Way Pre-K.

Because On My Way Pre-K is new in some areas, families might not have heard about it, Norvell said, and there are not many providers who have qualified under the program’s standards.

The state is continuing to enroll students throughout the year. Norvell said she also plans to hire more pre-K managers to market the program and is providing grants to help providers qualify to offer On My Way Pre-K.

Marshall County, a rural area in north-central Indiana about 25 miles south of South Bend, is particularly struggling to attract families for On My Way Pre-K.

Home to Plymouth, Indiana — population 9,960 — and a half-century-old blueberry festival that contends to be the state’s largest four-day festival, the county signed up just eight 4-year-olds so far, according to numbers provided by the state.

“It’s kind of sad,” said Carey Weir, owner and director of Carey’s Child Care Inc. in Plymouth. “We hyped it up, and there’s interest from the providers’ side, but I think just getting the parents to know about it is our dilemma right now.”

Carey’s Child Care, which Weir said does not have any 4-year-olds enrolled through On My Way Pre-K, is among just a handful of approved providers in Marshall County. At least one local provider dropped out of the program because of concerns about the amount of work to meet requirements.

Some providers also say they’re unsure how to guide families through the application process, which includes scheduling an in-person appointment with an intake agency.

“I don’t want to eliminate a segment of our population who really lack resources, just because they also lack resources to follow through with the process for applying,” said Christine Cook, principal of Triton Elementary School in Bourbon, which is gearing up to start offering On My Way Pre-K. “I think that it could be easier for families.”

At Max’s Playhouse in Culver, owner Brandy Pohl said she sought out clients who were eligible for On My Way Pre-K. She thinks the best way that families will find out about the program is through word of mouth — so she’s hoping the six On My Way Pre-K students enrolled this year will result in more in the future.

“I just think it’s going to take time and branding for the families to realize that On My Way Pre-K is an option for them,” Pohl said. “But I absolutely think the rural counties need it. I just think we have a harder hill ahead of us.”