Universal pre-K funding to be big topic for 2017 General Assembly

The 2017 General Assembly in Indiana is underway and one topic getting a lot of attention is if, and how, Indiana should expand state funded pre-Kindergarten. The former Democratic state School Superintendent, Glenda Ritz, supported universal pre-K. Reports show the new Republican in office, Jennifer McCormick, hopes to target low income kids first, aiming to get pre-K funding for them.

Both sides seem to agree that they want expansion; they just can't decide how.

According to research from Early Learning Indiana, of the state's three pilot pre-K programs, only 2,800 kids went to preschool because of it in the 2015- 2016 school year. They also say 70% of Hoosiers want to expand the reach of those programs.

Elkhart Community Schools agrees.

"There's a push for that to provide pre-K to all of our preschool children and I think that just kind of the stand Elkhart Community Schools is taking," said Kim Boynton, Director of pre-K Services for ECS.

She said the benefits of preschool aren't always academic.

"Learning the procedures and the routines and learning how to interact with others and learning to be away from their parents and be okay with that."

While Boyton said her district supports Glenda Ritz's idea for universally funded pre-K, Early Learning Indiana says that's a goal out of reach for the 2017 legislative session.

"I think at this time it makes sense to have a targeted program that focuses on low income families," said Ted Maple, the president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana.

That's a theory backed by the new Republican governor-elect, Eric Holcomb.

Maple says preschool can cost a family anywhere from $6,000-$8,000 per child.

"Full expansion to every child that needs it is not going to happen overnight while we'd like to see a big investment, the state has limited resources," he said.

Right now, Maple says many families still can't afford preschool, even if their income is nearing middle class.

"We'd like to see that extend, raised to 185% which is consistent with free and reduced lunch levels."

ECS is already trying to expand pre-K reach. Elkhart Schools recently began a partnership with Headstart to offer free services, and with Growing Kids Learning Center, to offer preschool in an elementary school building.

“I think just giving children those opportunities to interact with peers their own age, maybe to interact with other adults besides their parents, they learn the social skills," said Boynton.

WSBT 22 reached out to the new state superintendent-elect, Jennifer McCormick, but didn't hear back.

Governor-elect Eric Holcomb wasn't available for comment today, but we're told he's presenting his legislative agenda tomorrow (Thursday) at 2:00 pm.

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