Advocates launch lobbying effort to expand state preschool

The state’s top preschool advocates on Friday launched an advocacy effort that they plan to bring to the Indiana Statehouse next year to lobby for funding for pre-kindergarten scholarships for low-income children statewide.

Groups including United Way of Central Indiana, Eli Lilly and Co., Cummins Inc., PNC Bank, as well as both the state and city chambers of commerce, plan to start a direct lobbying effort and work with state lawmakers as they develop Indiana's next two-year budget to make sure an expansion of preschool is included.

The focus will be on advocating for a program to serve children from families earning up to at least 200 percent of the federal poverty line. That's an annual income of about $49,000 for a family of four.

And an advocacy campaign called “All IN 4 Pre-K,”—funded by United Way, the Lilly Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Glick Fund—will try to raise awareness about the possible benefits of preschool to Indiana families, education groups and business leaders.

“We need to ensure more Hoosier children—especially students from low-income families who stand to benefit most—can access high-quality pre-k so they start kindergarten ready to succeed,” said Ann Murtlow, United Way of Central Indiana president.

In 2014, the state, led by Gov. Mike Pence, passed a law that funded a small, $10 million preschool pilot program that was launched in five counties. And, in 2015, the Indianapolis Preschool Scholarship Program, paid for by city dollars, was started. Those programs, along with Early Education Matching Grants, served 2,800 children during the 2015-16 school year.

That isn’t enough, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said. The city’s program served about 1,600 children this year, but more than twice that number were turned away, Hogsett said.

“Their name wasn’t picked in the lottery system,” Hogsett said. "I worry about those kids, and it remains very troublesome that they will not have the same opportunities as their peers."

The idea of expanding access to preschool has been gaining more popularity politically within Indiana. The United Way group announced a recent poll they commissioned, conducted by Hart Research, that found that 63 percent of Republican voters and 82 percent of Democratic voters want to see Indiana expand access to preschool.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg has advocated for universal preschool. Republican candidate Eric Holcomb issued a statement Friday morning saying he joined Hogsett in supporting All IN 4 Pre-K's effort "to find affordable and responsible ways to bring early childhood education to the Hoosier families that need it most."

Gov. Mike Pence, two years after deciding not to pursue federal preschool funds, said in June that he would seek a federal pre-kindergarten grant.

Murtlow said Indiana is behind the times on funding preschool—41 states already fund statewide pre-kindergarten programs—but she said the benefit of catching up will allow the state to look at other programs and avoid any mitakes other states have made.

She said the goal is to put children in only high-quality preschool seats. Those would be in programs that have been ranked highly on Indiana’s Paths to Quality preschool rating system.

There are currently 3,000 open seats in high-quality programs across the state that could accept students today, Murtlow said.

There are current philanthropic efforts going on now to help programs climb the ladder on the Paths of Quality rating system, as well as to expand the number of seats in already high-quality places.

Murtlow thanked the philanthropic and business community for their leadership on the issue but said it is “unsustainable” to expect them to carry the effort. So far, that group has contributed an estimated $36 million to the pre-kindergarten cause through several grants and donations.

For instance, Eli Lilly and Co.’s advocacy was largely the catalyst for making sure the Indianapolis Preschool Scholarship Program ended up happening.

Lilly committed to work with businesses to raise $10 million for Indianapolis’ preschool plan, but only if the Indianapolis City-County Council and former Republican Mayor Greg Ballard worked out a deal.

Lilly CEO John Lechleiter, his wife, Sarah, and the Lilly Foundation this week gave United Way a donation of $10 million, directing much of it toward preschool advocacy efforts. He said pre-k offered the opportunity for a great return on investment.

The U.S. Department of Education said high-quality preschool programs offer a return on investment of $8.60 for each dollar spent. There are other studies that have found that could be a conservative estimate.

“We tend to want to invest in what works,” Lechleiter said of business leaders. “All of us rely upon a diverse, well-educated workforce to be successful.”

Indiana “can’t afford not to invest” in preschool, Murtlow said. Versions of that message were repeated several times at the event, and it likely will be a message that will be brought to the legislature next year.

Kendra Harper, a law student whose 4-year-old daughter Bailey attends Day Early Learning in Midtown Indianapolis, said parents should rally around the cause. She heard about the state’s On My Way pre-kindergarten program on the radio and ended up winning a spot in the lottery.

She pointed out an unsettling figure: $32 million that Indiana spends each year on kindergarten remediation.

Because of her experience in preschool, Harper said, “not a dollar of that will be spent on Bailey."

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