Ballard proposes $50M preschool program as part of crime initiative

Mayor Greg Ballard on Wednesday morning proposed a $50 million, 5-year program to pay for preschool for 4-year-olds from low-income families in Marion County and to buttress ongoing efforts to boost the quality of preschool providers.

Ballard proposed the preschool initiative in a speech about ways to fight Indianapolis’ alarming spike in crime. Speaking at the former City Hall building in downtown Indianapolis, Ballard also proposed adding 280 new police officers by 2018, making changes to the criminal justice system and launching studies to better understand how to help students that drop out of high school.

“There is a shared recognition that education is the key to a positive future for individual students, their families, their neighborhoods, and our city’s social and economic vitality,” stated a report prepared by Ballard’s staff on the preschool program. “However, we have yet to fulfill this promise for our children and city.”

Under Ballard’s plan, the city of Indianapolis would contribute $25 million toward the preschool program via a flexible grant to the United Way of Central Indiana. That money would be matched first by existing federal and state programs, including Gov. Mike Pence’s preschool pilot program that could bring Marion County as much as $3 million.

The rest of the matching funds would come via private fundraising. The program would be expected to benefit about 1,300 preschoolers per year.

Ballard hopes to pay the city’s $5 million per year portion by eliminating the homestead tax credit in Marion County, which his staff estimates would generate $7.5 million in additional annual revenue. The balance of those funds would be among the ways Ballard would pay for additional police officers.

Eliminating the tax credit would affect about 60 percent of Indianapolis homeowners, according to the mayor's office. The average homeowner affected by the proposal would pay another $1.84 per month.

But the City-County Council would have to go along with Ballard’s funding plan—even though the council has rejected the elimination of the homestead tax credit when Ballard proposed it for other spending purposes each of the past two years.

That credit, which is different from the much larger homestead deduction, is an income tax-supported subsidy that benefits some homeowners.

To further help pay for 280 additional police officers by 2018, Ballard has proposed increasing the public safety income tax by 0.15 percent. The increase, which also would require council approval, would cost the average Indianapolis household another $5.32 per month.

Taking into account estimated attrition in workforce, the number of IMPD officers would rise from 1,565 this year to 1,677 in 2018.

The Ballard administration distributed a list of statements of support for its preschool program from numerous groups, including the Indianapolis Urban League, Marian University, preschool providers like Day Nursery and St. Mary’s Child Center, and even the libertarian Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

“Violence and crime, if not addressed at the root causes, will hurt not just the individuals involved, but the community as a whole,” said Friedman CEO Robert Enlow.

Studies of highly intensive early education programs have shown that, over the long-term, the kids that participated in them have gone on to enjoy higher rates of employment and earnings, lower rates of crime and less dependence on public services.

However, paying for one year of preschool is not identical to the early education programs that produced those results. And the most rigorous studies of one-year preschool programs have shown short-term benefits that fade out in a few years or no benefits at all.

Ballard’s preschool plan would ask the United Way to create two new grant programs. The first would be a scholarship program for 4-year-olds living in families with incomes equal to or less than $44,123 per year.

That would cover about 8,000 of the 14,000 4-year-olds in Marion County, according to Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

Those scholarships could be used at preschool providers that have been nationally accredited or which score at levels 3 and 4 by Paths to Quality, a rating service for preschool and childcare providers in Indiana.

However, only 15 percent of early education providers in Indiana meet those thresholds, according to Ballard’s staff.

So United Way will also offer grants to preschool providers to help them boost their quality above the threshold. Separately from the Ballard plan, the United Way has been working in recent years to improve the quality of preschool providers.

The Ballard administration won’t dictate how United Way apportions the money between those two grant programs. However, as an example, the city imagines that $40 million could go toward scholarships and $10 million to grants to preschool providers.

Under that scenario, the Ballard program would pay for 1,300 kids to attend preschool per year. That would cover a substantial portion, but not all of the 3,000 to 6,000 kids the Ballard administration estimates are not in high-quality preschool programs.

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