Early childhood education advocates are suggesting new ways for the state to fund prekindergarten — by bringing in investments from local communities and corporations.
In a new report released Tuesday by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and Early Learning Indiana, advocates recommended the state look into tax credit scholarships, social impact bonds, food and beverage tax revenues, or local referendums to pay for expanded pre-K access.
“I don’t think it should be shouldered just by the government or by the private sector alone,” said Madeleine Baker, CEO of the Early Childhood Alliance in Fort Wayne, who co-chaired the report’s advisory board. “I think there needs to be partnership across the board. Everybody has to have skin in the game.”
Tuesday’s report kicks off a renewed campaign to expand early childhood education in Indiana, which is shaping up to be a budget battle in the upcoming legislative session that starts in January.
It could be fairly easy for the state to launch tax credit scholarships for pre-K programs, since Indiana already spends $14.5 million on the school choice strategy. Businesses and individuals receive a 50 percent tax credit on donations to scholarship funds for students from low- and middle-income families to cover the cost of private school tuition in grades K-12.
With social impact bonds — often called “Pay for Success” models — private investors contract with the government to provide money up-front for early childhood initiatives, which is paid back if the programs are successful. Illinois, along with Idaho and Utah, uses the strategy.
Passing a local property tax increase or an option income tax is an increasingly popular option for funding early childhood education with long-term revenue. But raising taxes is a tough sell in Indiana, and likely more so in the state’s rural areas.
An effort to pass a local referendum for early childhood education in Indiana has failed before. In Columbus, voters refused to back a referendum in 2012 that would have supported a public-private partnership widely pointed to as a success.
The other new ideas for funding streams — tax credit scholarships and social impact bonds — also come with trade-offs, said Bruce Atchison, principal of early learning for the Education Commission of the States.
“If you have a big corporation that’s going to put half a million dollars into that, that’s great,” Atchison said. “But when the corporation moves from the state or has a downturn in profits, it might not be so willing. So the long-term sustainability of the social impact bond piece becomes a concern.”
While the report did not include a big-picture estimate for how much more money the state should spend on pre-K, it did put a price tag on the cost of not investing in early childhood.
Employers in Indiana lose $1.8 billion each year from workers taking time off or leaving their jobs because of child care issues, the report said. Those absences are equivalent to losing 31,000 full-time employees and result in costs to businesses for paying for parents’ time off, hiring and training new workers, and paying for overtime or temporary workers.
The report also said the state loses $1.1 billion in economic activity each year from people reducing their spending if they lose out on wages because of child care issues.
It’s a popular argument in support of pre-K: Early childhood education benefits the workforce, both this generation and the next. Advocates say increasing high-quality pre-K seats helps parents stay or get back into the workforce while preparing young children with essential skills.
“Economic development speaks to Republicans,” said former Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican himself who championed pre-K and co-chaired the advisory board. “I’m hoping they look at these figures and say, hey, maybe that’s something we should be looking at.”
He added that he hopes the ideas for public-private partnerships — which he used to launch Indianapolis’ pre-K program — will also speak to the Republican lawmakers who dominate the legislature.
“I don’t think there’s yet a general understand that this should be done for many reasons, not the least of which is economic development,” Ballard said. “It’s just not in our psyche yet that this is part of who we are as Hoosiers.”
The state’s pre-K program, known as On My Way Pre-K, is in the fourth year of its five-year pilot. At a cost of $22 million per year, it is available in 20 counties and pays for roughly 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families to attend the high-quality pre-K provider of their choice.
If the state is to continue funding the pre-K program, advocates’ best shot for securing money is in the upcoming session, when lawmakers craft the state’s two-year budget.
Expanding pre-K is likely to have the support of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who pushed in 2017 for an earlier expansion of the program to more rural areas of the state.
The issue has already won the support of Republican state schools chief Jennifer McCormick, who said earlier this month that too many Hoosier children enter kindergarten unprepared.
Advocates cite research showing the long-term returns on investment of pre-K and a study showing the success of pre-K in Oklahoma. They even point to research showing where Tennessee’s pre-K program fell short as an example of how important it is to maintain high quality standards for pre-K.
A recent report also showed that universal preschool in Washington, D.C., helped more mothers return to the workforce.
But funding is still likely to be a sticking point: How much money will lawmakers be willing to invest in pre-K?
“In a budget year, everyone has a request for something,” said Tim Brown, general counsel and director of policy for the Indy Chamber, in an interview last month with Chalkbeat.
Advocates say they are still struggling to convince people that pre-K is a worthwhile investment that amounts to more than daycare.
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, said he believes pre-K has already proved its worth. Researchers have been studying the early outcomes of the state’s pilot program, which is showing both academic gains for children, and an increase in work and education opportunities for parents.
“I think the results of those programs are self-evident, that they do make a critical difference to get our young people off to a great start in life,” Hogsett told Chalkbeat recently. “So I hope that those results will speak volumes as the legislature crafts its next biennial budget.”