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Pence: no federal dollars to expand pre-K

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Gov. Mike Pence has opted to end Indiana’s bid for up to $80 million in federal pre-kindergarten funding, a move that appeases some conservatives as he mulls a 2016 presidential run.

Pence says he’s concerned about strings attached to the money. But Democrats complained Thursday that the Republican governor is throwing away an opportunity to expand a pilot program that is set to open next year to children in only five counties.

“It was assumed all along that obtaining these development grant dollars would be a real achievement for Indiana in moving early childhood education forward,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “For the governor to totally reverse course now calls for a complete explanation of why and exactly how he plans to replace such funding.”

But Hoosiers Against Common Core – a conservative group that had lobbied Pence not to seek the grant – called the move a “ray of hope.”

The decision comes as Pence is considering a run for president and facing criticism from conservatives for seeking federal Medicaid money to expand a state health care program for the poor. Pence has defended that decision but told the state’s Early Learning Advisory Committee this week that the conditions attached to the pre-kindergarten money are too great.

“While accepting federal grant dollars can at times be justified to advance our state’s objectives, when it comes to early childhood education, I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program for disadvantaged children without federal intrusion,” Pence’s wrote.

Indiana was in line to receive as much as $20 million annually from a preschool development grant, according to a notice filed in the Federal Register by the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services. The document lists Indiana as one of two states eligible for category one funding.

If Indiana had been successful winning the full grant, it would have tripled the funding available under the new pre-kindergarten program. Lawmakers created the pilot last year but told Pence – who had been advocating strongly for it – that he had to come up with $10 million from his own budget to fund it.

The five counties participating in the program were required to come up with matching funds, including some from private donations.

Pence told the early learning committee Wednesday that he had decided to decline federal support and the “additional requirements it brings.” But the governor was not specific about what requirements would be onerous.

“We have made it clear from the beginning of our efforts to advance pre-K education that we must be vigilant as we design the program the Indiana way and avoid the pitfalls that too often accompany untested and unproven objectives in federal policy,” he said. “Generous, thoughtful and careful development of new policies for our most disadvantaged kids is the Indiana way.”

The pilot is expected to launch early next year in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. State officials have said the program could provide pre-K classes for at least 1,000 and as many as 4,000 low-income children. The number depends in part on how much private money is raised to help fund the program.

To qualify, a student’s family could earn no more than 127 percent of the federal poverty limit. That’s about $28,380 for a family of four.

Business and philanthropic leaders already are urging lawmakers to expand the program immediately. “We have to start sooner,” said education consultant John Pierce, told the Education Study Committee last week. “We need to invest in the whole education continuum but we are concerned that our state is investing the least where the potential for return is the greatest.”

But House Speaker Brian Bosma said on Tuesday that won’t happen during the 2015 session. Bosma said he supports expansion but made a commitment to skeptical Senate Republicans last year that he wouldn’t push for more until the pilot shows whether pre-kindergarten is helping kids.

And without federal funding – and state revenues running behind projections – the chance of an expansion appears even bleaker. Lanane said the governor’s decision is a setback.

“The idea that we would, at this point, abruptly throw this opportunity away is hard to fathom,” he said.

Hoosiers Against Common Core – which had previously lobbied Pence to reject curriculum standards now in place in more than 40 states – urged its supports to tell the governor to say no to the pre-kindergarten grant.

On Thursday, the group reported on its website that Pence “had the good judgment and courage to walk away from millions of potential federal dollars.”

“Of course, there continues to be much work that needs to be done to return control of education to Indiana,” the group said. “But turning down this federal grant is a welcomed first step.”

Lesley Weidenbener is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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