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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 10:02 pm

Rally pushes for expansion of pre-K

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Hundreds of early-learning supporters took over the fourth floor of the Indiana Statehouse on Wednesday, urging lawmakers to expand Indiana’s small pre-kindergarten program.

"It’s a foundation that really elevates every child’s potential to be successful," said Madeleine Baker, CEO of Early Childhood Alliance in Fort Wayne.

The groups from around the state chanted "I’m all in" and "Success starts here" as a coalition of businesses, nonprofits and educators work together on growing the pilot program.

"I think it’s important that we as a community know that children are our future and we need to invest in them at an early age," said Greta McKinney, director of the MLK Montessori School in Fort Wayne.

She said they have 98 children in pre-kindergarten, and about half of those are enrolled through the state-funded program.

McKinney said the program is helping close the achievement gap. She and David Nicole, president and CEO of the United Way of Allen County, said lawmakers can invest now – or later through remediation, public assistance or prisons.

Nicole said 27,000 4-year-olds in low-income homes statewide need high-quality pre-kindergarten. The cost statewide would be about $180 million. And he encourages lawmakers to take "a substantial step toward that" by spending about $50 million.

Lawmakers are considering increasing the state’s pilot early-learning program, but leaders appear to be looking at a more modest increase.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has asked that funding be doubled from $10 million to $20 million but that the program not expand beyond the five counties where it’s now offered – Allen, Marion, Jackson, Lake and Vanderburgh. About 1,500 low-income children are served in the state program.

Nicole said Allen County’s On My Way Pre-K program has about 215 children, and more than 500 have gone through it in the first few years. He said the income threshold for eligibility should be raised. The cutoff is at 127 percent of the federal poverty line.

He said a woman named Karen recently applied for the state program but was rejected because she made $37 too much from her two jobs.

Others at the rally stressed that students all over the state need help, not just those in the five pilot counties. Thirteen counties applied to be part of the pilot program but were rejected, and some are pushing to expand into those counties first.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, told the crowd, "You have my word that we will work together to get this job done."

Other lawmakers also spoke in support, though none were specific on how much of an expansion would occur.

"We have studied this enough," said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis. "This is the time. We cannot wait anymore."

The House and Senate are considering pre-K expansion bills, but the amount of money to be spent will be decided in the state budget.