Gov. Pence, lawmakers applaud pre-K pilot program

The program will provide pre-kindergarten education for 1,500 children.

State lawmakers have wrapped up their session at the Statehouse.

One of the big items on their list is a pilot pre-K program for low-income children. It's a small victory for families, teachers and other advocates of pre-school education in Indiana.

The bill provides state funding for pre-school education in Indiana – the first time state money has been allocated for a program like this. It will reach just a small number of children in five counties to start with – 1,500 – because it's a pilot program.

Read more about the bill here.

The program targets children considered most at risk to start school with a disadvantage. The program, promoted by Gov. Mike Pence, comes with an evaluation process to determine if preschool really works, how well it works, and if the state should move forward.

"It's the Indiana way. As we get started, we put our money where our hearts are and then we deliberate, we consider and we're careful. I don't want to presuppose what the decisions of future legislators will be in this regard. What I can pledge is we're gonna move expeditiously to provide these resources to disadvantaged kids and then we're gonna very carefully consider the best way forward," said Gov. Pence.

The Senate held up a more ambitious plan due to cost concerns. The scaled-down $10 million plan must be paid for through the existing budget. That will come from the Family Social Services Administration without affecting existing programs.

The Day Nursery pre-school has scores of students and plenty of families who want their children in pre-school but cant afford the $195 weekly tuition.

"We work with families who every day who are struggling to pay the bills and struggling to have their children have a good start in life," said Marsha Hern-Lindsey, Day Nursery.

For the first time, state tax dollars will help pay the pre-school costs of children from low-income families. There is only enough money to help somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 children. The real potential is how many more children could be helped if this pilot program works.

Lawmakers are giving the program $10 million and an opportunity to prove its worth. The state will study its administration, implementation and academic impact on young students.

Governor Mike Pence wanted more, but sounds satisfied with the compromise. The Senate agreed with Pence's proposal on the condition it uses existing funds, starts small and carefully.

"This is ultimately a very, very expensive program for taxpayers in Indiana, so if we are going to do it and do it right," said Sen. David Long (R).

The tuition assistance will go to children who are at the most risk of starting behind other kindergartens and first graders and never catching up. Although some doubt the lasting benefits of pre-school, educators are convinced it's a good move.

"The brain development from birth to five years old is important. The experiences you give children at that time really works. It prepares them for school. It prepares them for success in life," said Hern-Lindsey.

The next step is determining which five counties will be test sites, and the application process.