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Ritz: Indiana Has The Money For Universal Preschool

Barnaby Wasson

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz wants to see preschool available to all Indiana kids — and says it should be at the front of lawmakers’ minds as they enter the 2017 legislative session.

The $150 million proposal to expand preschool in every district in the state would be less than one percent of the state’s annual budget, Ritz said. She says it’s among the Department of Education’s top policy priorities heading into the next legislative session.

“The Department will make high quality pre-K available within the boundaries of every school corporation in the state of Indiana by 2020,” Ritz says. “The funds are there if the political will exists.”

Indiana is one of only 13 states who doesn’t require school attendance until age 7. According to IDOE, 1-in-14 first graders never attend kindergarten or preschool — starting school later than their peers.

Ritz says statewide preschool can remedy this. Her plan wouldn’t require preschool, but it would provide free access to any family that wants it, regardless of income.

“We absolutely have to invest with our little ones,” Ritz said. “I want it open to all students who might want to attend a high-quality pre-K program.”

Ritz said the multimillion dollar proposal could comprise of public-private partnerships paid for from existing state funds, federal grants and private contributions.

In response to Ritz’s plan, Gov. Mike Pence says the state should focus funds on students with certain income qualifications, not all students. Under the state’s existing preschool pilot program, families are only eligible if they have incomes up to 127-percent of the federal poverty level — about $31,000 for a family of four.

“When it comes to disadvantaged kids the benefits of opening doors of access to early childhood education is very significant,” Pence said. “And that’s where we’ll focus.”

Pence also said under any state-funded preschool program, students should be able to use those resources in public, private or faith-based preschool programs.

Ritz’s announcement comes days after Pence indicated that he’s interested in seeking federal funds to expand statewide preschool. Pence’s move was a reversal from a 2014 decision when he stopped the Indiana Department of Education from applying for an $80 million grant that would have established a similar system.

Ritz’s decision to lay out budget priorities seven months before the session begins is another unusual move in this election year.

“Regardless of the politics I plan to get this implemented,” Ritz said.

Ritz is up for re-election this November.