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Indiana leaves $6M in state funds on table after slow pre-K signup

February 11, 2019
Stephanie Wang
Indiana Business Journal

Indiana expects to leave about $6 million in state funding for pre-kindergarten untouched this year due to a slower-than-hoped expansion, according to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

With last year’s pre-K expansion into 15 new counties, the state estimated it could serve about 4,000 children from low-income families. So far, only about 3,000 have signed up, which officials attribute to the challenge of introducing a new program in rural counties, where enrollment is lower. Pre-K providers also blame a complicated sign-up process for deterring interested families.

“We’re confident that we can serve more kids next year,” said Nicole Norvell, director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.

Indiana set aside $22 million this year for the pilot program, known as On My Way Pre-K, to subsidize costs for low-income families. On My Way Pre-K also taps federal Child Care Development Fund money. Norvell estimated On My Way Pre-K will use about $14 million federal dollars and more than $15 million in state dollars this year.

Last year, before the expansion fully launched, the state estimated it had almost $9 million left over.

Norvell said the leftover state funds can still be used for On My Way Pre-K in future years.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle characterized the issue of On My Way Pre-K not filling all of its seats as a hitch in procedures and rollout, rather than stemming from a lack of need or problems with the program itself.

“Is it slightly concerning? Yeah, but I’m not laying the blame anywhere,” said Senate education leader Jeff Raatz, R-Centerville. “We just gotta get it out there. It’s not been around long enough. I think we’re in good shape.”

Advocates and lawmakers are closely watching the state’s first long-awaited steps into investing in pre-K. While supporters want to make On My Way Pre-K widely available to children across the state, they are also careful to push for Indiana to maintain a high-quality program, in the hopes that the initial pilot years will show positive outcomes for families and children.

While this year seemed ripe for advocates to call for further expansion of the program, the state legislature appears poised to hold back from increasing pre-K dollars. Gov. Eric Holcomb called for the state to serve an additional 500 children in each of the next two years with the same level of funding.

Lawmakers are proposing ways to increase access to pre-K within its current spending limits, such as making it available statewide instead of by county or adding some flexibility within income requirements.

Another proposal seeks to address the limitations of a requirement that parents are working or in school in order for their children to receive pre-K vouchers, by making allowances for families who have parents with disabilities or grandparents as the primary caretakers.

Advocates say the need is there: Early Learning Indiana estimates that Indiana has about 16,000 4-year-olds in need of care whose families meet the income eligibility for On My Way Pre-K.