With little fanfare, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill Wednesday that will expand Indiana’s pre-K pilot program.
The new plan will expand state-funded preschool to 20 counties, tie it to the state’s private school voucher program and include a controversial option for online preschool.
Currently, the $10 million state-funded On My Way Pre-K program serves around 2,000 low-income students in five counties. Expanding preschool access in Indiana has been a key goal of lawmakers this session, including Holcomb.
Under the new $22 million plan, any of the state’s 92 counties are eligible to compete to become one of the 15 counties included in the expansion. Lawmakers say rural counties and places with a lack of high-quality preschool providers will be prioritized.
Under the new state budget, $1 million of the pre-K funding is dedicated to paying for online preschool for eligible families.
“Online pre-K is an OK supplement for quality classroom-based pre-K, but I don’t think it’s an adequate substitute,” says Ted Maple, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana.
Maple and a coalition of pre-K advocates had originally hoped to see state-funded preschool reach all 92 counties in the state.
“We’re very encouraged by the additional investment the state is making in expanding access to pre-K, but we also recognize there are many more children without access,” Maple says. “We’re hopeful that our state leaders will continue to expand access.”
In a controversial move, students would automatically be enrolled in the choice scholarship program if they attend a private school preschool and wish to continue there in kindergarten. Tying the pre-K program to the voucher program motivated some Democratic lawmakers to vote against the measure.
“We’d like to see universal funding for early childhood education, but this poison pill of the voucher prevents me from being able to support this bill,” said Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) on the Indiana Senate floor.
To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four must ear less than $30,861, or 127 percent of the federal poverty level. In the original five counties, families of four making up to $44,863, or 185 percent of the federal poverty level, could apply if all interested lower-income families received services.
The increase in preschool funding falls below what Gov. Holcomb and preschool advocates originally asked for.
Senate Republicans said they were wary of allocating millions more dollars to a state-funded pilot program that hasn’t been fully studied.
Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) made financial and ideological objections.