Indianapolis ends preschool program, leaving 3-year-olds without access to scholarships

Hundreds of 3-year-olds in Indianapolis will no longer qualify for preschool funding now that the city is ending its scholarship initiative.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett did not include $4.2 million for the Indy Preschool Scholarship Program in his 2020 budget, unveiled Monday.

The scholarship program, which will end after this school year, paid for 6,526 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families to attend high-quality programs of their choice over the past four years.

On My Way Pre-K, a state-funded $22 million preschool voucher program that was launched soon after the city’s pilot, will largely take its place. The state program serves some 3,000 4-year-olds from low-income families.

It doesn’t, however, accept 3-year-olds.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard launched the Indy Preschool Scholarship Program in 2015 as a five-year pilot. Thomas Cook, Hogsett’s chief of staff, said the purpose of the scholarship program was to “make the case to the state legislature that greater funding should be available for pre-K.”

“We’ve gone from a place where we didn’t have any significant capacity to serve children … to one that is going to be sustainable through efforts in state funding,” said Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Indiana, which facilitated the Indy Preschool Scholarship Program. “And that is a huge win for the state.”

Cook said the cost of funding the city’s scholarship program for only 3-year-olds would be “prohibitively higher.”

“Ultimately, neither the corporate or philanthropic [communities] expressed an interest in continuing to fund just 3-year-olds,” he told the Indianapolis Business Journal.

But Murtlow said there was no coordinated effort to create a separate program for 3-year-olds. In addition to city funding, the pilot had been backed by corporate and philanthropic donors, such as Eli Lilly, Anthem, Old National, IPL, and Community Health Network.

Research has shown ages 0-5 are critical years for children’s brain development. Preschool programs often focus on 4-year-olds before they enter kindergarten, but some programs in other states also aim to catch children earlier.

Cook said Hogsett would continue to lobby the state legislature to expand preschool funding to 3-year-olds. So far Indiana hasn’t moved to fund preschool for 3-year-olds who don’t otherwise qualify for free services through Head Start or special education.

During his term as mayor, Hogsett has largely prioritized reducing crime and fixing infrastructure issues. He has faced criticism for focusing less on education. He has, however, continued to back the preschool and charter school initiatives started by his predecessors and launched a push for more students to apply for college scholarships.

For now, the United Way will continue to focus on 4-year-olds, Murtlow said, although the ultimate goal is for younger children to have quality programs as well.

“We’ve got to get the 4-year-olds served, for sure,” she said. ‘You are only 4 once, and once they turn 5 you’ve lost the opportunity.”