IPS to tap state vouchers to fund pre-K as it weighs whether to charge tuition

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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat Indiana.

Indianapolis Public Schools will rely on state-funded vouchers for its expanded prekindergarten offerings once federal pandemic relief expires in 2024, as officials weigh whether to charge for prekindergarten in the future.

Beginning next year, all families will be required to submit an application for the state’s On My Way Pre-K voucher if they want to enroll their children at any one of the 22 IPS prekindergarten sites, even if they don’t qualify for the voucher. The vouchers are offered to families who earn a gross monthly income of less than 150% of the designated federal poverty level—or about $45,000 for a family of four, according to the state Family and Social Services Administration

IPS families do not need to be eligible for the voucher in order to secure one of roughly 700 prekindergarten seats next year, IPS officials say. All families will be eligible for matching with a prekindergarten program in the district-wide lottery, according to IPS. Those who qualify for vouchers will not get preference, but other preferences do apply.

The switch to state voucher funding for the district’s prekindergarten program is one of several changes that IPS and other school districts will have to make as federal pandemic relief funds expire. It comes as officials consider whether to charge for prekindergarten for families who can afford it. IPS is one of few districts that offer free prekindergarten. Across Marion County, charging tuition is the norm.

“This is a first step that I believe will lead to us likely taking on a charge for families, because the reality is even in the districts who offer it, it is at a cost,” except for those using On My Way vouchers, Superintendent Aleesia Johnson told school board members at a work session earlier this month.

IPS anticipates receiving enough funding from the On My Way Pre-K vouchers to cover prekindergarten programming expenses, the district said in a statement.

Vouchers should bring in roughly $4.2 million to the district next year to offset a program cost projected at roughly $3.8 million, Chief Financial Officer Weston Young told school board members last week.

If voucher funding is not enough to cover the cost, the district said it will supplement it with an alternative funding source, such as its main education fund or other federal funding.

The district’s reorganization plan, known as Rebuilding Stronger, increased the number of sites offering prekindergarten, from 29 classrooms at 20 sites last school year to 30 classrooms in 21 sites this year. Next year, the district will add one more site for a total of 31 classrooms.

Families can apply for prekindergarten for the 2024-25 school year online through Enroll Indy when the first enrollment period opens Nov. 1. To be eligible, students must be 4 years old by Aug. 1. Enrollment decisions will be released on Feb. 22.

A second enrollment period opens on Jan. 25, with decisions released on May 16.

The application period for the On My Way Pre-K vouchers opens in March. IPS will retroactively verify with the state whether families applied for the voucher.

The enrollment lottery will give priority placement to families who live in the IPS district, IPS employees, students who have a sibling already attending the designated school, and families who live in the new enrollment zone that the school serves.

After that, remaining seats will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis, according to the district.

Families who received a prekindergarten seat next school year are guaranteed a seat in kindergarten at the same school for 2025-26.

IPS has also partnered with Early Learning Indiana to open another early childhood education site at the future Howe Middle School, which opens next school year. This site is separate from the 22 prekindergarten sites and offers classes for even younger ages.

This site will offer 79 seats across two infant rooms, two toddler rooms, one preschool room, and one prekindergarten room. Priority is given to IPS employees and IPS students with children.

The Day Early Learning Center at Howe opened this week with three initial infant, toddler, and preschool classes totaling 20 students, all of whom were students of IPS employees. The district offered scholarships to families enrolled this year, paid for through federal pandemic relief funds. Families had to apply for available state or federal assistance in order to qualify.

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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