Pence seeks federal pre-K money after previously turning it down

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence reversed a previous position and announced on Thursday that he will seek federal money to help expand a pre-kindergarten program for disadvantaged children.

"I am committed to opening the doors of opportunity to the most vulnerable children in our state," the Republican governor wrote in a letter to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, inquiring about federal funding.

Pence strongly advocated for the state's existing On My Way Pre-K pilot program, which was launched across five counties in 2015 and has since sent about 2,300 low-income children to preschool at annual cost of about $10 million.

But many early education supporters were surprised at the time when Pence, whose name was being floated as a possible GOP presidential candidate, announced he would not seek $80 million in federal pre-kindergarten funding amid lobbying from religious conservatives, tea party groups and a network of home schoolers opposed to accepting the federal money.

Since then, the state's pre-K program has proven popular, though the majority of families who applied have been turned away because demand has outstripped funding.

At the time, Pence said his administration decided not to seek federal funding because it would have required "us to expand our pre-K pilot before it is even up and running."

"It is important not to allow the lure of federal grant dollars to define our state's mission and programs," Pence wrote in 2014. "More federal dollars do not necessarily equal success, especially when those dollars come with requirements and conditions that will not help — and may even hinder — running a successful program of our own making."

On Thursday, social conservatives said they opposed taking federal funds while Democrats were quick to accuse Pence of opportunism during a tough re-election fight against former Democratic House Speaker John Gregg, who narrowly lost to Pence in 2012.

"While we are glad that Mike Pence is finally coming to terms with his colossal mistake of turning away $80 million of our own tax dollars to fund pre-school programs, it is clear this is an election year stunt," said Gregg spokesman Jeff Harris.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, said Indiana is "years behind" because of Pence's "political showboating."

"Over two years ago when the Governor 'expressed interest' in seeking pre-K funding, the Department spent hundreds of hours applying for $80 million in federal funding only to have the Governor change his mind and cancel the application at the last minute," Ritz said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Micah Clark, of the American Family Association of Indiana, questioned the effectiveness of pre-K programs and suggested that any federal money could come with unwanted requirements.

"The feds don't do anything without strings attached. Look at what's going on with bathrooms: the Obama administration is threatening to pull funding from schools," Clark said, referring to a recent directive from President Barack Obama's administration mandating schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms that conform with their gender identity.

The Indiana Association of Home Educators also issued a statement criticizing Pence's recent decision.

"We are disappointed Governor Pence has decided to change his position and apply for federal preschool dollars. This decision will cause the federal government to gain greater control of Hoosier families," the groups said.

Pence said the pilot program may have been jeopardized if he sought the $80 million.

"I kept a promise I made to key legislative leaders in order to gain their support for my prekindergarten program," Pence wrote in the letter. "I promised I would not expand the program until we saw evidence that it was working."

Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd also disputed Democrats' characterization of the governor's decision.

"Expanding early childhood education for disadvantaged children should not be a partisan issue and Hoosiers will see through this unfortunate, cynical attempt to score partisan political points," he said.

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