Early Childhood

In rare legislative appearance, Pence touts preschool

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence testified on behalf of a bill for the first time as governor today, making a personal plea for support for his proposed preschool pilot program.

His goal: Get reluctant fellow Republicans on the Senate Education Committee to vote yes on House Bill 1004 to create the program.

But the bill could still be in trouble. After Pence’s remarks, Republican committee members remained skeptical, asking a long list of questions about the cost, practicality and need for state-paid preschool.

Pence’s testimony was an unusual move for a sitting governor and a first in his 13-month tenure in office. The bill, which is near the top of Pence’s legislative agenda, would establish a framework to provide tuition support for about 1,000 low income four-year-olds in five counties to attend preschool.

Pence said preschool is critical to reducing childhood poverty because it can help the state’s poor children to be ready for school and to have a better chance in life.

“I have come to the conclusion that we will not succeed in this fight if we do not honestly deal with the fact that too many children do not do well in school because they simply aren’t ready to learn,” Pence said. “With great respect, I ask you to move this bill out of committee so that the Senate can continue consideration of this important measure.”

Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation estimates the program would cost about $10.6 million when fully implemented. No money would be spent on preschool until after the state’s next biennial budget is created in 2015, according to CECI. Start up costs in the first year cost would be about $650,000 with the first children enrolling in 2016.

Without preschool, many poor children never get on track academically, Pence said.

“They arrive in kindergarten and spend too much time trying to catch up, and when that fails, they spend too much of their lives dropping out – out of school, out of work and out of our communities,” he said.

Pence said poor children struggle in school through no fault of their own.

“It’s not that they are not willing and bright,” he said. “As a parent and as your governor, I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”

House Bill 1004 easily passed the House last month 87-9. But its fate in the Senate Education Committee is expected to be key to its chances for becoming law.

A similar preschool pilot program passed the House last year but was dismantled when it could not garner enough support in the Senate Education Committee. Committee members at the time expressed concerns about the cost and need for such a program. Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said last month he had not detected any change in attitudes about creating a new preschool pilot program in 2014.

Republicans on the committee who had doubts last year asked pointed questions today of the bill’s author, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, asked Behning if the bill was “premature” because it created a program that required funding before next year’s budget-making process. Kenley chairs the Senate’s powerful appropriations committee.

“If we pass this now, do we give it special treatment in budget?” he asked.

Behning said it would still be up to the legislature to decide if it should fund the program next year along with all of the state’s other budget priorities.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, asked whether the program was needed when the state already had federally funded Head Start programs for children in preschool and if preschool should be funded instead of adding more aid for kindergarten.

“Does it bother you we are not making Kindergarten mandatory but we are doing this pilot?” she asked.

Behning said the kindergarten issue was all but solved even without a state requirement to attend. More than 95 percent of seven-year-olds are now enrolled since the state added more funding for it last year.

Leising said she wants to hear about how the pilot program will interact with federal programs like Head Start.

“Nobody could answer my questions,” she said. “I want to know before I vote.”

Kenley said cost is his big worry. The program may only be planned for $10 million, he said, but there will be pressure to expand it in the future.

“It may or may not be a good idea,” he said. “I think that is really deals with a potentially large budget commitment on our part. So we have been having discussions on if that is a legitimate concern on my part or not.”

Committee members heard about three hours of testimony on the bill and expects to vote on it next week.

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.