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Many turned away from state's preschool program

November 30, 2015

The majority of families who applied for Indiana's new preschool pilot program for disadvantaged children were turned away due to limited funding.

The program, which was signed into law in 2014 by Gov. Mike Pence, set aside $10 million a year to send as many as 2,500 children from low-income families to preschool in five counties.

But demand has outstripped the amount of money lawmakers made available for the program, which is offered in Marion, Lake, Allen, Jackson and Vanderburgh counties. As a result, only about 43 percent of those who applied were accepted.

Demand is particularly acute for th program in Marion County, where roughly 70 percent of the 5,000 who applied to a joint program operated by the state and city were rejected, The Indianapolis Star reported. That's despite an additional $4.2 million supplied by the city.

In Lake County, only 40 percent of those who applied to the state program were accepted. Vanderburgh County had the highest rate of acceptance, but still denied about 35 percent of applicants, state figures show.

Pence initially sought to make the program statewide and hoped to send 40,000 children to preschool. But lawmakers balked, prompting Pence to downsize his ambitions.

Some were surprised when the governor decided last year against seeking $80 million in pre-kindergarten funding from the U.S. Department of Education, which could have supplied a major boost. Pence said at the time that he was concerned about the federal conditions and requirements that were likely to be tied to the funding.

Republicans who control the Legislature say additional funding is not likely in the immediate future. A legislative study to evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot program will be complete in 2020. Democrats say there is a preponderance of research showing pre-K programs work.

"People felt as though we needed to have some pilot programs and then take a look at the pilot programs and see what affect pre-K has on a child's achievement level," said state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary. "I always thought there was enough data nationwide that certainly made the case for pre-K."

A Pence spokeswoman said the governor intends to study the issue but wants to see results before making a decision.

Depending on the outcomes, House Speaker Brian Bosma said, "We will be prepared to advocate for more investment down the road."

State Sen. Luke Kenley, a key budget writer, left the door open to additional funding, saying it is something for lawmakers to consider when writing the next state budget in 2017. But the Noblesville Republican also cautioned that "it is too early to know yet where we will stand with this."

Meanwhile, many families who apply will likely find themselves frustrated.

"They are families that are working and need simple, basic services for child care, which they cannot receive because of the extensive wait list for child care services," said Andrew Cullen, vice president of public policy for the United Way of Central Indiana.

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