Two top Indiana Democrats on the ballot this November released a plan Thursday for developing a state-funded preschool program that would be available to all Indiana children regardless of family income.
Former House Speaker John Gregg, who is running for governor, and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said their joint proposal would direct $150 million to a universal pre-K program that would be paid for with existing money. Funding for the program would come from re-prioritizing some state spending and rededicating money budgeted for other programs that goes unspent.
Overhauling the state's much maligned ISTEP test to make it cheaper while eliminating some other costly exams is another set of examples they offered.
Another major source could be federal dollars, they said.
Gov. Mike Pence championed the state's existing "On My Way Pre-K" pilot program that 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 Pence surprised many in 2014 when he opted against seeking $80 million in federal funding, citing concerns about "federal intrusion."
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."
Gregg said he had no problem spending federal tax dollars.
"These aren't mythical dollars that Washington, D.C., prints up and sends back to us—these are our tax dollars," Gregg said. "The governor decided because of his differences on an ideology basis with the president, he didn't want to take the dollars ... I don't know who the next president is gonna be, but Ol' John is gonna get every one of our tax dollars back. "
Indiana is one of 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, some religious conservatives and a network of home schoolers opposed to the idea, as well as the acceptance of millions in federal money that could help pay for it.
While Pence initially was opposed pursuing federal pre-K funding, he has since shown he is open to the idea. Recently Pence wrote a letter inquiring about pre-K funding to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services.
"Governor Mike Pence is proud to be the first governor in Indiana history to successfully shepherd a state pre-K program through the General Assembly," deputy campaign manager Marc Lotter said in a written statement. "Governor Pence is committed to expanding Indiana's program in a responsible manner to serve more children in need while also ensuring the state can afford to support pre-k in the years to come."
Gregg said Pence's shifting stance on federal funding comes at an awfully convenient time and appears to be a "baptism by election year."