Indianapolis Passes $40M Pre-K Plan

by | December 2, 2014

By Brian Eason

After months of acrimony in which the chances of passage seemed bleak, plans for a $40 million early childhood education program in Indianapolis are on the verge of becoming reality.

The City-County Council voted 19-8 late Monday for a five-year plan to provide preschool scholarships to low-income families in a bid to stabilize future generations of at-risk youths.

The proposal, which cleared a council committee with a unanimous vote, establishes the program's framework but puts off some significant decisions to next year -- namely, how to fund it.

Nonetheless, the vote remains a significant milestone in the pre-K debate.

"The city of Indianapolis today took a major step toward becoming a place where all children have the tools to succeed," Republican Mayor Greg Ballard said, adding that the plan's passage would "ultimately make Indy a safer city by addressing the root causes of poverty and violence in our community."

"This is the end of a long, long road," said council Vice President John Barth, the Democrats' top negotiator on the plan. "This is a big deal."

It commits the city to contributing $20 million that's expected to come from some combination of investment income, leftover homestead tax credit funds and money from a potential authorization fee for charter schools.

Public dollars would be matched with $20 million from businesses and nonprofits, including the Eli Lilly and Co. Foundation, which has already pledged $2 million with a commitment to raise an additional $8 million.

Passage didn't come easy. The plan was criticized by council members on both sides of the aisle who said it was fiscally irresponsible to take on a new program when the city couldn't even afford the basics, such as police, fire and roads.

Democratic Councilman Joseph Simpson complained that crime is a problem today -- and not one that could wait 20 years while today's preschool students become adults.

Others stressed that education is the state's responsibility and needs to stay that way. Republican Councilwoman Marilyn Pfisterer worried that by taking on pre-K today, Indianapolis was setting itself up for unfunded mandates in the future.

Under the program, an estimated 700 to 1,200 children from the most at-risk neighborhoods would receive scholarships toward attending pre-K programs. Families making a household income of up to 127 percent of the federal poverty level -- or $30,290 for a family of four -- would be eligible.

One such family is that of Ashley Thomas, an Indianapolis parent of three who spoke at a rally before Monday's vote. She said she didn't qualify for the Head Start program and couldn't afford to send her oldest child to preschool.

"It was one of my biggest regrets in life," said Thomas, who now works for Stand for Children Indiana. "We can do better for our children."

Despite broad support for the concept, floated by Ballard as part of a crime-fighting initiative in July, the debate reached an impasse over funding. Ballard wanted to pay for it by repealing a homestead property tax credit. Democratic council leaders said eliminating that credit was never on the table.

But after months of finger-pointing, the two sides came together Monday for what they thought was a workable plan that the community at large could support.

"Studies are pretty clear on this," Ballard said. "These kids will get better grades later in life. They'll be more likely to finish high school. They'll be more likely to enroll in college." And, he said, they'll be less likely to get arrested.

Leading up to Monday's vote, expectations ran high among the program's proponents.

More than 50 supporters rallied at City Market hours before the vote, clad in blue shirts and "I heart pre-K" stickers urging passage.

While many said they were swayed by the return on investment that pre-K provides, Republican Councilman Jeff Miller said that for him, the reasoning was much simpler.

"This is a moral imperative," Miller said. "Every child deserves a fair education, a good education, a quality education. Every child deserves a fair shot at life, and that's what we're giving them."

(c)2014 The Indianapolis Star