Surprise! Pence is interested in federal preschool funding afterall

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Less than two years after Gov. Mike Pence shocked Indiana by rejecting $80 million in federal preschool funding, he’s reversing course.

Pence told federal authorities in a letter Thursday that he is interested in getting federal funds to expand the state’s fledgling preschool pilot program, which along with extra funds from Marion County currently serves just 2,300 children in five counties.

“I am also pleased to inform you that the pilot program is going extremely well, and we are encouraged by the support and interest it has received at the local level,” Pence wrote in the letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Secretary Sylvia Burwell. “I would sincerely appreciate it if you would let us know when the application will be available for the Preschool Development Grants program.”

The letter marks a stark reversal for Pence, who faced strong criticism for failing to apply for a “development grant” in 2014. Indiana was a top federal priority with a chance to win as much as $20 million a year in grant funding. At the last minute, Pence decided not to apply for the grant in order to avoid “federal intrusion.”

Democrats were quick to point out that Pence’s letter expressing interest in federal funding is an about-face for the governor. Both the head of the Indiana Democratic Party, John Zody, and State Superintendent Glenda Ritz released statements calling the letter “showboating.”

“Sadly, we have been here before with the Governor,” Ritz said in a statement. “Over two years ago when the Governor ‘expressed interest’ in seeking pre-K funding, the Department spent hundreds of hours applying for $80 million in federal funding only to have the Governor change his mind and cancel the application at the last minute.”

Sen. Jean Breaux of Indianapolis, the assistant minority leader in the Indiana Senate, said the Democratic caucus would support increased preschool funding. But she said Pence’s letter is a political move to show support for preschool during an election year.

“The timing is a bit suspect,” she said. “Particularly when he turned down millions of dollars in federal funding during a bid-year when Indiana could’ve had money for pre-K.”

Although Pence didn’t pursue federal funding, he advocated for the first state program to provide direct aid for preschool, a small pilot that began in 2015.

The state spends $10 million per year on the pilot program, which serves children in five counties. In Marion County, local and private contributions increase the number of vouchers, but demand still exceeds funding and slots are granted by lottery. Fewer than half the 4,200 Marion County children who applied for vouchers this year are expected to win them.

Preschool advocates told Chalkbeat in April that they were planning to lobby for a significant increase in state preschool funding.

“We’ve have learned a lot from the pilot,” said Andrew Cullen, the vice president of public policy for the United Way of Central Indiana. “That’s what the pilot was there for, so it’s time now to talk significantly about an expansion.”

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.