Looking to reach children statewide, Indiana expands its pre-K voucher program

For the first time, children from low-income families across Indiana could have the opportunity to go to prekindergarten for free.

The state will open up its pre-K voucher program, On My Way Pre-K, to eligible families statewide — a key expansion of what had been a limited pilot program only available in 20 counties, including most of Indiana’s larger cities.

Families in rural communities and small towns in particular will benefit from the expansion, since many of them could not previously apply for the vouchers.

“We as a state should do everything possible to encourage our kids to learn at an early age and learn to love learning,” said state Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, a high school teacher and co-author of the legislation to broaden the pre-K program.

The pre-K expansion easily passed the legislature this week with bipartisan support. The legislation still awaits the approval of Gov. Eric Holcomb, who highlighted increasing pre-K access as part of his agenda for this year.

But some lawmakers were still divided over whether the expansion was ambitious enough or went too far. Indiana will extend pre-K to more families without an increase in funding — the pre-K budget will remain at about $22 million each year for the next two years.

Pfaff said she didn’t think the state was taking a big enough step toward serving more students.

“We should be putting more funding toward pre-K,” she said. “We should be accessing more people through pre-K. Unfortunately, we’re just not there yet.”

A handful of conservative Republicans opposed the expansion, voicing concerns over the state taking responsibility for providing pre-K.

“My question is, where does it stop?” said Rep. Chris Judy, R-Fort Wayne. “Our primary focus is K-12, so what is our role in the pre-K as a state government? … We have a limited amount of money in our budget.”

Indiana is in the early stages of supporting early childhood education. On My Way Pre-K launched on a small scale in 2015, growing to serve about 3,000 children from low-income families this year. The vouchers subsidize up to $6,800 for a 4-year-old to enroll at top-rated preschools of the family’s choice.

Still, Indiana continues to lag behind other states, many of which have had longer-running programs that reach many more preschoolers. Advocates estimate that Indiana has 27,000 eligible 4-year-olds that the state could be serving.

On My Way Pre-K is struggling to sign up enough families, particularly in rural areas where the program is new. That’s one of the reasons why the state hasn’t pursued a more aggressive pre-K expansion, and why lawmakers aren’t adding more funding to the program.

But making the program available statewide is expected to help fill the open seats.

If the seats aren’t all claimed right away, the state can also now accept a limited number of families who don’t meet the program’s income or job requirements. Some spots could be made available to families who make slightly more than the cutoff — up to $47,638 for a family of four, for example, which is above the program’s standard threshold of $32,700.

Some families could also be exempt from the requirement that parents are working, seeking jobs, or in school. The state could make some allowances if a parent cannot work because of a disability, or if grandparents are raising a child.