Indiana schools chief proposes statewide pre-K education

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz on Tuesday called for Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP-controlled Legislature to adopt a universal pre-K education program that would offer free preschool to all students across the state regardless of family income.

"The funds are there if the political will exists," said Ritz, who is the only Democrat elected to statewide office. "With less than 1 percent of the state's annual budget, we can ensure that most of our children are kindergarten ready."

Indiana is one of just a handful of states that does not offer a significant pre-kindergarten program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Nonetheless, the adoption of a statewide program has proven politically difficult with tea party groups, religious conservatives and a network of home schoolers opposed to the acceptance of millions in federal money that could help pay for it.

Ritz, who has frequently clashed with the state's Republican officeholders, is up for re-election in November but says getting a universal pre-K is a longstanding goal of hers and the roll-out of her proposal Tuesday was not motivated by the election.

"Regardless of the politics, I plan to get this implemented," Ritz said.

Ritz estimates her plan would cost about $150 million a year and could be paid for with federal funds, reprioritizing some state spending and rededicating money budgeted for other types of child-welfare programs that goes unspent. More details about the plan will be released later this week.

Still, any plan she puts forward faces an uncertain future. This year, she saw Republican majorities in the Legislature turn away many policy proposals.

Ritz could find an unlikely ally in Pence. He strongly advocated for the state's existing On My Way Pre-K pilot program, which 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 the Republican governor surprised many in 2014 when he opted not to pursue $80 million in federal grants, citing concerns about "federal intrusion."

Now, facing a difficult re-election against Democratic former House Speaker John Gregg, Pence has changed his mind. Last week he wrote in a letter to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, inquiring about federal funding for pre-K. And he has directed some blame for not pursuing the money toward his fellow Republicans, whom Pence says didn't want to expand the program without proof that it worked.

When asked about Ritz's proposal Tuesday, Pence said he favored a pre-K program geared toward helping poor children. Ritz, meanwhile, is calling for all children to be eligible for pre-school.

"When it comes to disadvantaged kids, the benefits of opening doors of access to early childhood education is very significant and that's what we'll focus on," Pence said. "I think it's important that whatever we do in the years ahead that it's voluntary, but also that parents would be able to use those resources at a public, a private or even a faith-based pre-K program."

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