INDIANAPOLIS – Five years after starting a preschool pilot, Indiana is taking it statewide – though without new dollars and not without some growing pains.
“I'm just frustrated because big government moves slowly and I would like for it to move a little quicker than it has to get it deployed around the state,” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who sponsored the expansion in the Senate. “I think we'll get there. It's just going to take time.”
Legislators created a pilot for five counties in 2015 – Allen, Marion, Lake, Vanderburgh and Jackson. It was pushed by then-Gov. Mike Pence.
Fifteen counties were added in 2017 – covering the more populous areas of the state.
Overall, about 3,000 4-year-olds are in the program, with about 220 in Allen County. Since 2015 the state has spent about $51 million on the program, including about $5.6 million in Allen.
Families must earn less than 127% of poverty, or about $2,700 a month for a family of four, to qualify. Early childhood advocates believe there are 27,000 4-year-olds in low-income families statewide.
The program took a bit of a hit in 2018 when lawmakers added a work requirement. Parents must either be working, going to school or attending job training. The program refers to this as a service need and it applies to both parents in the house.
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said this allowed the state to use its federal child care dollars within the pre-K program. He acknowledged it has been somewhat of a problem and legislators this year carved out an exemption of sorts for those on Social Security or with a disability.
But there is no doubt the work requirement has meant turning away otherwise eligible families, said David Nicole, president and CEO of United Way of Allen County.
The group has coordinated the county's preschool participation and Nicole said he is confident the county would have a waiting list if not for that change.
Prior to the work requirement, Allen County saw parents increasing work hours or going back to school as a result of the preschool voucher. Now they must do so first to be eligible.
“In general, we are excited to invest in our youngest citizens to make a lasting impact in their lives and in the lives of our community and our state,” he said. “We encourage our legislators and the state as a whole to go back to the initial intent of On My Way Pre-K and look at the child themselves.
“The child cannot control their parents, and we want to serve the child. Period.”
Nicole also thinks Indiana should increase the income guideline to 185% of poverty and put more state dollars toward early learning.
In the state budget starting in July, lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb kept funding at the same $22 million annual level, which includes $1 million for a home-based program.
During legislative hearings it became known that the Family and Social Services Administration hadn't fully spent what was appropriated in prior years, leading to a $15 million accumulation in unspent dollars.
Nicole Norvell, who runs the program for the state, said the legislature expanded the program effective July 2017 – when most children were already signed up for preschool for the fall. That led to a delay in fully using the funding.
She also said there has been a slow growth of providers. To participate in the program a provider must have a Level 3 or 4 Paths to Quality designation – which generally means the program is more about learning than child care. Adding in the federal dollars also freed up some of the state money, she noted.
“We expect this year that families are more aware and there are more providers so enrollment numbers are up,” Norvell said.
A monthly running tally on the Family and Social Services website shows 796 youth signups statewide as of June.
The new law allows eligible providers in any county to participate.
The statute limits state funding for the voucher to $6,800 but the reimbursement rates differ slightly per county and per level of care.
Three counties – Stark, Warren and Sullivan – are without providers though overall there has been a 92% increase in facilities meeting the criteria.
When first started, an organization in the counties acted as a central contact and helped raise the matching grant dollars used – 5% of the state funding in the county. In Allen County that has been United Way, though in others some foundations or school districts have stepped up.
The rollout statewide will be less coordinated.
Norvell said nothing prohibits a countywide effort but enrollment will likely flow more directly through individual providers.
Providers sign up with the state, which will funnel applications for children their way via pre-K managers around the state.
As for the match, the state can also advise providers on organizations or ways to procure the 5%. A rural county recently had a local farmer provide the match for a planning grant.
The match also isn't due until the end of the school year, so as signups are happening now for the 2019-2010 school year providers can start looking for dollars.
Holcomb's modest goal is to increase the program by 500 this year.
Eventually, Holdman noted, if more children are enrolled using previously built up money, the legislature will likely have to increase the appropriation or kick kids off.
Nicole said Indiana needs to show commitment with dollars – not just moving funding around like with the federal child care dollars. That move – aka the work requirement – also cost Indiana its place in a national preschool report.
The National Institute for Early Education Research has removed Indiana from a list of states funding preschool programs. That's because they now consider it a child care program.
“They seem to have a goal of universal pre-K and every year it seems to be more politically pressing for that,” said Marni Lemons, spokeswoman at Family and Social Services. “They included us last year but with an incredibly negative result. This year they didn't include us at all.”
She and others at the state agency are focusing on how to grow the program.
The first change will be a marketing effort focusing on how it prepares children for kindergarten. That is what parents have told the state was most important. In the past, marketing focused on the program being free.
Norvell also noted that getting families through the eligibility process is a challenge. So Family and Social Services is working with other state agencies that might already have the documentation needed, from a birth certificate to proof of income. Some of the families might be on the state health plan or receiving welfare and by working together can cut some of the red tape.
Family and Social Services has also piloted more communications through text and email and found the generation using the preschool vouchers respond at a greater rate via these means.
“I think overall for those in the program it's been going very well,” Behning said. “I think if you talk to the advocates some of us would like to see more students enrolled. We are working on that.”
At a glance
Here are annual enrollment and spending for the On My Way Pre-K program:
2015: 404; $1.27 million
2016: 1,585; $8.89 million
2017: 1,792; $9.29 million
2018: 2,234; $14.37 million
*2019: 2,989; $17.59 million
Source: Family and Social Services Administration