Indiana taking applications for preschool program

Indiana's preschool pilot program will begin in January with about 400 openings available in four of the state's largest counties, the program said Wednesday in announcing it will take applications for those slots until Dec. 15.

The Office of Early Education and Out-of-School Learning said it has begun accepting applications from needy families in Allen, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties for children who are 4 years old and will start kindergarten next August.

The program called On My Way Pre-K is open to households with incomes below 127 percent of the federal poverty level, the office said. Families of four can earn no more than $2,524 per month to be eligible. Income eligibility varies by the size of the family.

The office said Jackson County will join the other four and be fully operational by fall 2015. The pilot program is expected to ultimately serve about 2,000 students in those five counties.

The initial 400 spots will be distributed according to each county's ability to accommodate students, said Marni Lemons, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, which includes the Office of Early Education and Out-of-School Learning.

If the number of families qualifying exceeds the grants available, a lottery will determine which ones receive the grants, the office said. The grants will be worth as much as $6,600.

Once a family has received a grant, parents may choose from eligible, enrolled preschool providers, the office said. It's currently enrolling providers in public and private schools, licensed daycare centers, licensed homes or registered ministries.

The Indiana General Assembly approved about $10 million for the five-county pilot, a top legislative priority of Gov. Mike Pence, earlier this year, and organizers are seeking up to $5 million in private funds to expand the program. Pence is expected to ask the General Assembly to keep funding the program when it writes a new two-year state budget next year.

Pence surprised many early education supporters last month when he announced he would not seek $80 million in pre-kindergarten funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The four-year grant could have helped Indiana serve up to 5,700 more children from low-income families, the Evansville Courier & Press has reported. Pence's decision was cheered by religious conservatives who oppose federal involvement.

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