Lilly execs make pitch for local preschool education

Eli Lilly and Co. executives on Friday repeated their plea to local businesses to support early childhood education, highlighting work force development and crime-reduction benefits.

Last month the company pledged to put $2 million behind Mayor Greg Ballard’s early education initiative, which was introduced as a part of an anti-crime package in July. His pre-K initiative would cost $50 million—half from the city and half from other sources. Beyond its $2 million, Lilly also committed to spearheading the effort to raise $10 million in corporate contributions over three years.

“For far too many of our residents, an opportunity for a better life is increasingly at risk,” CEO John Lechleiter said at the briefing attended by about 70 people, including representatives from Cummins Inc., Indiana University Health, Finish Line Inc. and Chase Bank Indiana.

“While underlying problems are complex, I believe the best thing we can do is advocate for and support the straightforward idea that many more of our children must have access to education, including high-quality early education,” Lechleiter said.

Lilly officials have been drumming up corporate support over the past few weeks, said spokesman Ed Sagebiel, and “expect to have a number of commitments relatively soon.”

Before this year, Indiana was one of only nine states that didn’t provide public funds for early education. According to The Annie E. Casey Foundation, some 60 percent of Hoosier children ages 3 and 4—about 105,000 children—are not attending preschool. The figure reaches 70 percent for children in households making less than 200 percent of the poverty level.

Nationwide, 54 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t in preschool.

“The fact that a disadvantaged 5-year-old starts kindergarten with the vocabulary of an average 3 ½-year-old is startling,” Eva Blum, executive vice president and director of community affairs at PNC Bank, said at the briefing.

“By the time these children reach third and fourth grade, they cannot do math or read at grade level. Reversing this trend is difficult and expensive,” she said.

Economist Robert Dugger of the Washington, D.C.-based Institution for New Economic Thinking, shared a variety of study results suggesting that investments in educating children age 5 and under led to higher earning power, and lower dropout and incarceration rates.

“We can’t imagine an economy without young adults,” Dugger said. “It is the most important product we produce and therefore it should be the most important focus of our society, of our economy.”

Ballard, a Republican, and members of the Democrat-controlled City-County Council, are working on a funding scheme for the initiative. Ballard initially proposed paying for the program by eliminating the local homestead tax credit, but the council has tabled that discussion.

Lilly officials at the event, including Vice President and Chief Tax Executive David Lewis, implored government officials to settle their differences. The initiative doesn’t just have crime-related implications, he said, but business implications, too.

“As other companies look to this community,” Lewis said, “I think when they see a vibrant pipeline of children coming through the schools, that certainly makes a community more attractive.”

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