prek debate

How a computer program designed for home-based preschool in Utah could get a piece of Indiana’s education budget

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Indiana lawmakers are moving ahead with a proposal that would spend several million dollars over the next two years expanding preschool. But $2 million of that wouldn’t be spent on classrooms, teacher salaries or picture books.

Instead, it would give parents access to software that claims to get kids ready for kindergarten in “just 15 minutes a day.”

The unusual proposal — which might not survive the contentious budget-writing process — is part of an ongoing debate about how to expand education for Indiana’s youngest students. Indiana already grants low-income families vouchers to use at preschools in five counties, including Marion County. But that program serves fewer than 1,600 kids, and demand far exceeds supply.

To help, Senate lawmakers are discussing how to add funding for both traditional preschool and an online program. But educators and preschool advocates say they aren’t convinced that any software will meet the needs of the poor children that Indiana says need preschool most.

“I can see how a good online program, guided by family in the home, can supplement high-quality pre-K, but it certainly is not a substitute,” said Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana, a non-profit child care provider and advocacy organization. “A skilled preschool teacher would design activities that encourage children to work together, learn how to be part of a classroom community.”

Read: What makes a preschool great: 4 things parents should look for

Upstart, a software program developed by the Utah Department of Education and the nonprofit Waterford, is at the center of the proposal. The program’s website claims that Upstart “prepares children for kindergarten in just 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.”

Parents and children work for a year with the software, which adapts its instruction based on a child’s progress. The focus is on literacy: letters, vocabulary, basic grammar and sounding out words. Upstart also provides people to check in with the family if they have questions or if attendance falls below a certain level.

Utah, South Carolina, and Floyd County in southeastern Indiana already make the software available. Idaho is also considering the program.

According to Utah’s report from 2016, when a little more than 5,000 kids used Upstart, those kids made gains on literacy tests over peers who didn’t use the program. But the children participating were overwhelmingly white, native English-speakers from educated, two-parent households. Half of the Utah families studied made more than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, which is $48,500 per year for a family of four.

That raises questions about whether its effectiveness will translate to other environments, Maple said, though Upstart says its program has proved effective with a wide range of students. To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four can’t earn more than $30,861 annually, and the state has made poor children its top priority as it began subsidizing early education in recent years.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, said the $2 million investment in “in-home education” would allow Indiana to reach 1,000 more students, potentially in rural areas where preschool options are more limited.

Across the state, just 36 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool at all. And nine Indiana counties do not have a preschool provider that is deemed “high quality,” so residents couldn’t participate in the state voucher program even if it was expanded.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, noted that the online option would also come at a lower cost. If families already have access to computers, the program would cost the state $1,000 per year, or $2,000 if a computer needed to be provided. That’s far less than the $6,800 full-day and $2,500 half-day preschool grants that the state’s current program typically doles out.

But Holdman also said that the online program doesn’t align with Indiana’s specifications for safety and academics for high-quality preschools.

During an impassioned debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, voiced extreme skepticism about the online program given research showing the benefits of preschool.

“We’re funding (preschool) at a $4 million increase,” Stoops said. “But then we’re taking $1 million of that and we’re applying that to a really untested, kind of strange, virtual homeschool program.”

Kenley, just as strongly, disagreed.

“Your argument that we have studied this to death and we know with absolute certainty that this is the silver bullet that solves all of our problems,” he said. “I don’t think is a foregone conclusion.”

The Senate’s proposal also comes as schools across the country continue to struggle with online education. Kenley himself acknowledged there were issues with virtual schools when he presented his budget plan late last month, which limited funding for virtual schools serving older students compared to the House’s plan.

Today, the Indiana Senate passed its version of the two-year budget, which will head to conference committee for more debate. If the online preschool plan makes it into a final bill, it’s unclear if it will be opposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has said he is “open-minded” about the online education option. But he wants to make sure that the state is investing money in traditional options as well, he said.

“This is a worthy discussion that the Senate has put forward, the in-home option,” Holcomb said. “We need to be increasing the quality facilities that we have throughout the state.”

Budget woes

In budget address, Pritzker proposes modest education increases — vowing to ‘invest’ in Illinois’ future

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.