Preschool advocates urge ‘aggressive’ action from lukewarm lawmakers

Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb and legislative leaders, in the first week of the Indiana General Assembly’s 2017 session, threw some cold water on preschool advocates’ goal to spend $50 million a year on expanding the state’s pilot program.

While House Speaker Brian Bosma and Holcomb have both acknowledged their personal support of growing the five-county, 1,600-student pilot program, both have said they’re envisioning a much smaller expansion.

Holcomb, in a legislative agenda announced Thursday, said he wants to double current spending of $10 million annually to $20 million a year on the program in those same five counties: Marion, Allen, Jackson, Lake and Vanderburgh.

“I see the need for it,” Holcomb said. “I don’t want to go too fast into this. I do want to review the research that’s still coming. That doesn’t mean we need to wait. Help is on the way, but we have to do it in a responsible way."

Bosma said he wants to expand the pilot to “more low-income students and more counties.” He said spending $50 million on preschool would be a “difficult lift” this session, and called the advocates’ ask an “aspirational goal.”

But preschool advocates say they’re not budging on their plan, which would invest more in scholarships for low-income students for pre-K programs, as well as grow capacity for high-quality programs around the state.

Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana, said the group would “continue to seek an investment of $50 million per year.”

"We urge them to be as aggressive as possible in seeking solutions to build a high-quality system able to support the more than 27,000 low-income Hoosier children who lack pre-K today,” Murtlow said in a statement.

Ted Maple, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana, said “parents, teachers, business leaders, and concerned citizens from all over the state—from Evansville to Elkhart—are calling for Indiana to be 'all in' for pre-K.”

Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Pelath also urged legislative leaders to prioritize a big expansion of the program.

“I just don’t know what all the hand-wringing is about,” Pelath said of Holcomb’s plan. “There’s other communities that would certainly benefit, particularly with respect to job recruitment and keeping young citizens here in this state. Certainly [I] would like to see it expanded much more than this."

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