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Indiana Poised to Join States With Publicly-Funded Preschool Programs

[UPDATED: (March 28): Gov. Mike Pence signed the state's pre-K pilot bill into law March 27 to create Indiana's first state-funded pre-K program.] 

The Indiana General Assembly has approved a bill that would devote up to $10 million to a preschool program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, joining 41 other states that pay for preschool with public dollars.

(The states currently not operating a state-funded preschool program are Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. However, Hawaii is starting a program for about 1,000 children beginning in the 2014-15 school year; Utah lawmakers have voted for a public-private preschool partnership described below.) 

On March 13, the last date of the legislative session, the state House approved the bill by a vote of 92-8 and the state Senate approved the measure 40-8. The bill is now in the hands of Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, who signaled his support for preschool in February when it looked like the legislation was going to be diverted to further study, rather than action. 

"I think the time is now to start voluntary pre-K scholarship program for our most disadvantaged children," Pence said during a visit to a Indianapolis preschool that was reported by the Indianapolis Star. "But I also think Indiana would do well to take time to study not only the pilot program launched, but to study other programs around the country."

The money for the program would come from the state's Family and Social Services Administration, as well as federal and private funds, and would be available to families in five Indiana counties (as yet undetermined) who earn at or below 127 percent of the federal poverty level, currently about $28,380 for a family of four. Up to 4,500 students from five Indiana counties (yet to be determined) would be eligible for vouchers that could be used to pay for high-quality preschool. The bill also aims to solicit an additional $5 million in matching funds from private sources. The program could be up and running as soon as the fall, but state education officials say a 2015 start date is more likely

Utah state legislators have also approved a preschool program with a unique funding structure: legislators approved a plan to solicit private money to pay for preschool programs for children from low-income families. If a program is successful in reducing the number of children later enrolled in special education, the state would then reimburse the investors. A similar public-private partnership is in place in the 67,000-Granite district. That bill is currently awaiting the signature of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican. 

Bruce Atchison, the director of the Early Learning Institute at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, said in a conversation with Education Week that the moves in Indiana and Utah appear to be following a non-partisan trend towards supporting early childhood education. Thirty states increased funding for early childhood in the 2013-14 fiscal year, the commission recently reported; of those states, 16 had Republican governors, and 14 had Democratic governors. 

"More and more policy makers are getting on board," he said. 

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