Early Childhood

Democrats raise doubts about Ballard's preschool plan

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Preschoolers at Shepherd Community Center last year.

Democrats who are wary of some parts of Mayor Greg Ballard’s blockbuster $50 million proposal to help more children attend preschool across Indianapolis will offer their own preschool expansion plan later this month.

While some of Ballard’s allies are charging that Democrats are playing politics and putting at risk opportunities for poor Indianapolis children, both supporters of his plan and some of those with reservations say they are optimistic that expanding preschool can still happen.

“My Democratic friends have been in favor of pre-K until Republicans say, ‘let’s do this,'” said City-County Council member Aaron Freeman. “Amazingly, it’s a fight. Everybody’s got to have an alternative plan. Frankly, I’m sorry, but the time for deal making and the time for alternative plans is kind of gone.”

Even so, Democrats and Republicans have been holding talks in search of a compromise.

“We are 100 percent committed to getting preschool done for our children and for our city for 2015,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.

From Ballard’s July announcement calling for preschool to be a central pillar in his plan to sustainably curb the city’s crime and education problem, there were signs that the political road ahead might not be smooth.

For instance, Council president Maggie Lewis and other prominent Democrats were noticeably absent from the announcement and soon after began raising concerns about Ballard’s preferred method of funding the program: eliminating the local homestead tax credit.

Ballard has argued that while cutting the homestead credit would cost some Indianapolis homeowners an average of $22 per year that they now save from their tax bills, it would be worth it to support 1,300 more spots for preschoolers and help local providers meet high-quality standards.

Democrats have countered that eliminating the tax credit would both cost some homeowners more and hurt the city’s 11 public school districts by also taking away more than $3 million they receive. But Ballard responded that the school districts would benefit significantly by enrolling more incoming students who were better prepared to start kindergarten because they had been to preschool first.

Council Vice President John Barth, a Democrat, said he plans to unveil an alternative to Ballard’s plan in time for the City-County Council’s next meeting on Sept. 22. Though Barth hasn’t finalized all the details of what his plan will entail, he’s sure that it won’t include using the elimination of the homestead tax credit as a funding source.

“The resistance to that funding mechanism is not new and is well known,” Barth said. “I am working on a proposal that gets specific and into the weeds on how a pre-K program would work in Indianapolis.”

Ballard’s staff and some Republican council members said they are open to considering alternative funding plans if it can assure the preschool plan happens.

“We appreciate and welcome any and all ideas that Councilman Barth would propose,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said. “The homestead tax is one sustainable source of funding preschool and putting more police officers on the street. However, we are open to any sustainable funding source and are eager to hear the Democratic counter-proposal for funding this.”

Kloth said he is in talks with Barth and others, including Lewis, to work through their differences with the mayor’s plan. Most of the negotiations are centered around how to fund the program, Barth said.

“To me, if we agree preschool is No. 1, then we need to re-balance the budget to demonstrate that,” Barth said. “That’s a painful process, but we’re working through that. I’m trying to navigate through the middle and get everyone on the same page.”

Republican Councilman Jeff Miller said he became a strong preschool proponent after he saw the learning gains his child made while attending a preschool program. He said he would be receptive to hearing an alternative to the mayor’s plan if it means more kids get to attend preschool.

Miller said there likely will be support for an alternative plan among Republicans on the council.

“For me, it’s never been about the funding having to come from here, here or here,” Miller said. “The funding has to come from a source that is viable. It felt like the homestead credit was a good way to go. But I’ll be the first to say that if there are other plans out there, I’m willing to listen to them.”

Others aren’t open to deal making.

Councilman Steve Tally, a Democrat, said he opposes the mayor’s proposal because of it will cost money that now goes to public schools, libraries and other services. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, stands to lose $734,000 if the homestead tax is eliminated.

“In addition to increasing the tax burden on our residents, it disproportionately impacts people who live in very modest homes and our seniors who have paid their mortgages off in some of the most challenging neighborhoods,” Tally said.

Some councilmembers just think it’s time to eliminate the homestead tax credit for good.

“If there was a way to (fund preschool) with some other funding mechanism, I’d certainly consider it, but my concern is that any proposal that’s floated is going to be for the purpose of avoiding eliminating the homestead credit,” said Republican Councilman Will Gooden. “I’m afraid if they’re treated separately at this point, the can is once again going to get kicked down the road.”

Time is running out for the council to decide if it wants to use the tax credit elimination. By law, Kloth said, there is a Sept. 22 deadline to vote on the tax credit.

Meanwhile, education leaders and preschool advocates are waiting to see if the city will make a big commitment to preschool.

Ted Maple, president of preschool provider Day Nursery Association and a long time advocate for expanded preschool, said he doesn’t care how the city’s preschool program is funded as long as it is high quality.

“I’m hopeful we can come to an agreement as soon as possible,” Maple said. “We have too many children out there that need early childhood education. We as a community have waited too long to do the right thing for kids. If we put it off now, we’re at risk of putting it off again for a really long time.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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