Council leaders, mayor find $15M for pre-K scholarships

A bipartisan group of Indianapolis City-County Council members announced a plan Wednesday that could direct $35 million toward preschool scholarships for low-income families.

The proposal calls for capturing $15 million in city funds over five years, which would be added to $20 million pledged by private sources. Council President Maggie Lewis and Vice President John Barth said they’ll introduce the plan at the council's meeting on Monday. The proposal is co-sponsored by Democrats Leroy Robinson, Pam Hickman, Steve Talley, Mary Moriarty Adams and Vop Osili, and Republicans Jeff Miller and Ben Hunter.

The council’s funding plan is an alternative to the one Republican Mayor Greg Ballard pitched this summer. Ballard's plan would have raised $25 million from the city, but required the council to eliminate the homestead tax credit, a non-starter with some members of the majority Democratic caucus.

In a Wednesday press release, the council leaders said they will pull $15 million over five years from three sources:

— The elimination of 35,000 fraudulent homestead claims. City officials estimate the one-time windfall at $34 million, which went to city-county fund balances.

— Reallocation of funds currently used for oversight of charter schools.

— Interest generated by an $80 million fiscal stability fund, created in 2011 from the sale of the city’s water utility to Citizens Energy Group.

The city money is to be matched by $10 million pledged by Eli Lily & Co. and another $10 million from unidentified philanthropic sources.

“The Indianapolis pre-K program will provide access to high-quality early preschool to help close the learning gap for those most in need,” Barth said in a prepared statement. “I’m proud that, through hard work and careful negotiations, this proposal has earned bipartisan council support as well as support from the Mayor’s Office and the corporate community. But I am most gratified that it will help children in our community get a better start in school.”

The money will be available to 3- and 4-year-olds from families with annual income of less than 127 percent of the federal poverty level, which would be less than $30,290 for a family of four.

Only high-quality preschools, as defined by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration’s Paths to QUALITY program, could receive the money. The public funds would be used only on services to children, not capacity-building by preschools.

Ballard hailed the bipartisan effort.

"I encourage the council to get this agreement on my desk so I can sign it, and we can start enrolling children in preschool next year," he said in a prepared release.

The council's Community Affairs and Education Committee will oversee the program and its budget.

“Council leadership thanks Mayor Ballard for proposing the initial concept of a pre-K program for Indianapolis,” Lewis said in a prepared statement. “We also thank Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth, Chief of Staff Jason Dudich and former Chief of Staff Ryan Vaughn for their work with the council in developing the initiative."

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