After months of negotiations, the City-County council Monday night voted 19-8 to approve a $40 million plan to provide high-quality preschool to as many as 1,300 low-income families in Marion County.
Council Vice President John Barth co-sponsored the ordinance. He told supporters Monday evening before the vote that access to high-quality early education could provide a counterweight to rising rates of child poverty in Marion County, where one-third of children live at or below the federal poverty level.
"The good news is that high-quality Pre-K can improve academic, socioeconomic and behavioral health outcomes for children, so passing this proposal tonight, 367, will put our children who are most at-risk on a pathway to a better life, making our city strong and our families stronger," Barth said.
The money would come from removing 35,000 homes from the Homestead Tax Credit program, reallocating funds for charter school oversight, and interest from the Fiscal Stability Fund.
The program would also leverage about $20 million in private funding from businesses and foundations. About $2 million of that would come from Eli Lilly and Company, which is also leading an effort to raise another $8 million from other corporate donors.
The compromise is smaller than one Mayor Greg Ballard proposed earlier this year, allowing 3- and 4-year olds to take advantage of the program, and prioritizing the children of poorest families. Under the plan, a family of four with an annual income of just over $30,000 dollars would get highest priority.
At a rally that drew about 150 people before the council vote Monday night, Lilly Foundation President Rob Smith explained why Lilly has kept pushing for the proposal.
"We have no more important priority as a community … than to dramatically improve the quality of education that’s received by all of our kids, and we have to start early. We have to start early with greater investments in high-quality early childhood education," Smith said. "All of the economic studies would suggest that every dollar that’s invested in high-quality early learning would generate anywhere from $2 to $16 in long-term benefits for communities that have the foresight to make that investment."
Ashley Thomas, a mother of three who works for Stand for Children Indiana, says that low-income parents face many roadblocks when it comes to educational access for their children. Her son didn’t qualify for Headstart, but she couldn’t afford to send him to Pre-K. She hopes that the new program may allow her to give her younger daughter the chance that her brother didn’t have.
"Research shows that quality preschool programs supplement what parents can do. They give kids advantages that those who don’t go to preschool just don’t receive. We can do better for our children, Thomas said. "Let’s fund preschool. Children shouldn’t be penalized for being born into families that cannot afford quality preschool or for having parents who don’t know how to teach them important skills for kindergarten."
"It is the responsibility of all of us as a community to ensure that every child is placed on the path of success at an early age. These babies will be the leaders of tomorrow. Let’s lead them to greatness. I say to the city county council ‘lead the way.'"
The council vote 19-8 in favor of establishing the five-year pilot program. It is expected to vote on funding for the program in January.