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Indiana Preschool Pilot Garners Praise, Despite Bumpy Launch

Pence-Indiana-Preschool-blog.jpgIndiana may only be serving about 2,300 preschool children with state money—far less than the thousands of children enrolled in state prekindergarten in neighboring states—but its program has already made a big splash. 

The news organization Chalkbeat Indiana reported in August that Indiana 4-year-olds who are not legal U.S. residents are not eligible for the pilot program, funded at $10 million this year. By law, the state has to administer the pilot program funds the same way it administers federal money that goes to poor families to help them pay for child care. That money is also not available for children who are not legal residents. 

The news prompted widespread comment, including from U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who called Indiana's move "shortsighted and wrong." I'll be exploring the legal details of Indiana's unique position in an article to be published this week, but in the meantime, what else can be said about Indiana's preschool program, which is starting its first full year of operation? 

First, there are actually two new publicly funded preschool programs in Indiana. On My Way Pre-K is the five-county state program, and it was open to children from low-income families who live in the counties that include Evansville (Vanderburgh County), Fort Wayne (Allen County) Gary (Lake County), and Indianapolis (Marion County.)The pilot program also calls for the participation of a rural county, and Jackson County was selected to participate

Separately, the Indianapolis Preschool Scholarship Program, or Indy PSP, is funded by the city and private partners. Indy PSP serves 3-year-olds as well as 4-year-olds, unlike the other four counties that receive only state dollars. They are open only to 4-year-olds.

The pilot had a "soft launch" in January, with every county except rural Jackson County participating. This year marks its first full school year that all five counties are providing state funding for prekindergarten.

Nearly 7,000 families applied for the programs, which demonstrates the pent-up demand for state-funded pre-K, supporters say. The state distributed vouchers worth between $2,500 and $6,800, and families could use them at any high-quality provider. 

"One of the things we're most proud of is that families in this community are considering this an honor and privilege," said Andrew Cullen, the vice president for public policy for the United Way of Central Indiana, which is administering the Indianapolis-area programs. "Their child has been given a unique opportunity to receive an education that many of their friends are not going to receive." 

Melanie Brizzi, who directs the Indiana Office of Early Childhood and Out of School Learning, a part of the Family and Social Services Administration, said there has also been a "halo effect" from the prekindergarten program. Families had to find providers who were at level 3 or level 4—the top rank—on the state's rating system for early childhood providers, Paths to Quality. Early-childhood providers responded by boosting the quality so that they could be eligible for the voucher dollars. 

"The providers have really responded," Brizzi said. "They made real efforts of getting to level 3 and level 4." The next step is evaluating the program, Brizzi said. The state plans to pay for a longitudinal study that will track the outcomes for these 4-year-olds until they reach 3rd grade. 

"Now, as we enter into that data collection program, we're very confident that we are going to learn a lot," she said.

Cullen, with the United Way, said that the organization hopes this is just the start of a broader commitment to early education by Indiana lawmakers. Currently, the pilot program has no sustainable funding; lawmakers have committed to paying for an additional year.

"This should not be a pilot program," he said. "Supporting a program that includes long-term funding continues to be a top priority for the United Way."

Photo: In March 2014, Gov. Mike Pence joined preschoolers and legislators at DayStar Childcare Ministry in Indianapolis to sign into law Indiana's first state funding for prekindergarten. Courtesy Indiana Governor's Office. 


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