School choice advocates wield heavy influence in Indiana, but not all of them have fully thrown their weight behind the state’s newest voucher program: pre-K.

Both of Indiana’s voucher programs were born from the same idea of educational choice, which allows low-income families to use public money to choose the best school for their children, regardless of whether it’s public or private.

But the preschool program, On My Way Pre-K, doesn’t enjoy the same kind of support among Indiana conservatives as its K-12 counterpart. That reality speaks to widespread attitudes toward preschool — that it’s the purview of the family, not the government.

On My Way Pre-K is in its fifth year of a measured launch, in stark contrast to the rapid expansion of K-12 vouchers that made Indiana’s one of the nation’s largest and broadest programs.

“Determining why folks choose to support one aspect and not another … sometimes it’s perplexing,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, noting that both pre-K and K-12 vouchers are grounded in the tenet that parents know what is in the best interest of their children.

Indiana’s business community largely drove the state’s push for pre-K, making an economic argument for giving a head start to children from low-income backgrounds. Five years in, On My Way Pre-K serves 3,517 4-year-olds across the state. Eligible parents receive vouchers of up to $6,800 to send their children to a top-rated preschool program, be that at a school, a daycare center, a church, or a private home.

Now Indiana is approaching a critical decision over whether to grow the program by increasing funding or expanding income eligibility. Early childhood advocates, pointing to research showing the benefits of preschool, are seeking a program that’s accessible to more families.

But it remains to be seen how effective their arguments will be against critics’ deep-rooted beliefs and doubts about the benefits of pre-K.

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The notion that early childhood education should fall to the family — not the state — reveals itself in how the state’s school system is set up.

Although the state fully funds kindergarten, children in Indiana aren’t required to go to school until they are 7. Generally, preschools don’t have to meet any educational standards, which made it difficult to find qualified providers in the rollout of On My Way Pre-K. And the preschool program isn’t considered education in the way as K-12 is, as it’s run by a different governmental department — the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, not the Indiana Department of Education.

Indiana earmarked $22 million this year for the preschool vouchers, the only state preschool system. It is expected to spend more than $150 million on K-12 vouchers, which serve about 3% of Indiana students.

There’s hesitancy to dedicate more funds and expand preschool because there’s still a fundamental question of whether government, through public schooling, should be extended beyond kindergarten, said Rob Enlow, president of EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

“I think there are a lot of people on all sides of the aisle saying, ‘Hey, this is my responsibility, this is a family responsibility,’” Enlow said.

Enlow said EdChoice supported the On My Way Pre-K program because it believes that public money should follow the student to whatever school they choose. But the national organization notably gives greater support for the K-12 program.

It remains unclear whether students who go to preschool will see long-term academic benefits compared to students who stay at home, Enlow said, citing a controversial 2018 study out of Tennessee showing academic boosts fading by the third grade.

That’s a question that has slowed expansion efforts in other states and leads preschool advocates to try to prove its worth through pilot programs.

“I think that’s one of the challenges that I personally have, that I’ve always had with pre-K,” he said.

Critics of the Tennessee research have said the long-term effects of preschool are difficult to study because there are too many variables to tie a student’s success or failure in third grade back to preschool. Other studies have found that students who attend preschool are better prepared for kindergarten and see some lasting benefits.

Research has also found that preschool can serve as an effective early intervention for low-income students, closing the learning gap between their peers.

Mike O’Connor, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., a major supporter of On My Way Pre-K, said decisions about access for students should be made based on what’s best for their education, he said, not by politics. In an ideal situation, without politics at play, he said preschool vouchers would be seen as an extension of K-12 vouchers.

“You can pretend it’s the parents’ responsibility,” O’Connor said. “But if it’s not happening adequately… we are creating a population that is behind the curve.”

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K-12 vouchers, when they were implemented in 2011, never faced the same steep ideological battle as On My Way Pre-K. Vouchers for older students appealed to a strong sense of family. They were touted as giving low-income parents the power to choose a better option for their children than the poor-performing schools many were attending. Conservatives also saw vouchers as an opportunity to push traditional public schools to compete and, ultimately, improve.

However, the program received backlash from public school groups who saw vouchers as a drain on state education dollars that would otherwise go to public schools — and were now being funneled to private institutions.

Pre-K vouchers, by contrast, aren’t disrupting the state’s status quo in the same way since, with few public options, communities have long relied on private preschool providers.

People are used to that structure, said Elcesser, of Indiana Non-Public Education Association, noting: “In the pre-K world, they embrace funding a mixed-delivery system. They want all types of providers, and that’s not the same in the K-12 world.”

Dianna Wallace, executive director of the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children, which advocates for preschool, said On My Way Pre-K met less resistance for funneling money to private schools because students may not have any other options.

“When a child reaches the age of 5, that child has an opportunity to actually be educated,” she said. “But the difference in Indiana is that when that child is 4, that’s not been the case… It wasn’t a choice, it was that they would not have any other opportunity.”

In the next budget cycle, advocates will likely fight to add more funding to pre-K, but one of their greatest challenges would be creating enough momentum behind their movement. Pre-K advocates say they want to stay away from politicized ideological arguments, leaning instead on the benefits to the economy and the outcomes of research.

Still, it’s not clear what pre-K advocates need to do to make their efforts as successful as K-12 vouchers have been — or how big of a push Indiana’s most influential education advocates will take up for pre-K.

MOVING 4WARD is a collaborative reporting project by IndyStar and Chalkbeat Indiana. Over the course of the next few weeks and then occasionally throughout the year, the project will examine the current state of early childhood education in Indiana with an emphasis on how best to prepare our state’s 4-year-olds (hence the project title) for kindergarten and beyond. Expect stories to take a critical look at preschool programs, issues of access to those programs, the debate over the value of taxpayer-funded universal preschool, what lessons can be learned from other states, and — perhaps most importantly — what you, as a parent, need to know to make informed decisions about choosing your child’s preschool.

Read more:

Amid key expansion, Indiana fills its On My Way Pre-K seats

Why a seemingly chaotic pre-K class may be the best kind

Children who go to preschool are better prepared for kindergarten. But is that enough? 

‘Lost opportunity’: Most 4-year-olds are left out of Indiana’s preschool expansion

Kindergarten has become a critical year of learning, but Indiana still doesn’t require it