Indiana Governor Pence Takes Heat for Rejecting $80 Million Pre-K Grant

Governor Mike Pence

Governor Mike Pence’s decision to reject an $80 million federal grant for pre-K education has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum.

Pence announced last week that Indiana would pull out of a competitive grant process that could have awarded the state tens of millions of dollars to fund a desperately under-funded early childhood education system in the state.

The US ranks 25th in the world in terms of enrollment of 4 year olds in early education programs. The Obama administration has made it a top priority to improve early childhood education for all Americans.

The 2015 federal budget includes $1.3 billion in funding for the Preschool for All program and another $500 million for Preschool Development Grants, which help states like Indiana build their preschool systems.

“These grants will help states, local education agencies, and local governments build the fundamental components of a high-quality preschool system or expand proven early learning programs,” the US Department of Education describes on their website.

“To be eligible for funding, prospective grantees must describe how they will expand access to children from low- to moderate-income families, ensure an adequate supply of high-quality preschool slots and qualified teachers, monitor for continuous improvement, partner with local education agencies and other providers, and sustain high-quality services after the grant period.”

In declaring that Indiana would not apply for the $80 million grant, Pence cited a desire to avoid “federal intrusion” in pre-K education policy. Pence did not go into detail what “pitfalls” the state would face with the federal grant.

“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. 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,” Pence said in a statement.

Pence noted that the legislature appropriated $10 million earlier this year for a pilot program in five counties, but the governor offered no explanation on how the state would fund the program statewide.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz called the governor’s decision a “huge missed opportunity.”

“I was extremely disappointed because the Early Learning Committee had been working on this,” Ritz said. “I really don’t know the details of why the governor has decided not to submit it.”

“I’m very much surprised and I really think there needs to be further explanation from the Governor,” Senate minority leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) said. “Are we going to start turning down all federal dollars at this point in time? What if we have federal emergency management funds we desperately need in the state? Are we just going to walk away from those, because we don’t want anything that has the federal government’s name attached to it? … if it’s based upon politics, that’s putting politics before the best interests of the children of the state and I think that’s wrong.”

In a letter to the governor, Senator Joe Donnelly asks what specific problems Pence has with the grant.

“What specific federal requirements and conditions tied to the Preschool Development Grant would impede the expansion of pre-kindergarten in Indiana? Have you discussed these concerns with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education?” Donnelly writes.

Politicians are not the only ones critical of the governor’s decision.

The Indianapolis Star editorial board lambasted the governor, saying that his decision “is perplexing, and disappointing.”

“Taxpayer dollars are too precious, and the need for high-quality preschool too great, for Indiana to walk away without reasonable explanation from the potential of $80 million in federal grants for early childhood education. Yet, as The Star’s Matt Tully reported, Gov. Mike Pence did precisely that this past week,” the editorial board writes.

The South Bend Tribune called Pence’s decision “disappointing” and “utterly baffling” in a state with “the dubious distinction of being one of a dozen states that spent no public money on early childhood education.”

Another writer for the Star argues that “the Indiana way hurts the poor.” Pence often says that he will pursue the “Indiana way” for his policy objects. Critics note that the “Indiana way” has meant rejecting the Medicaid expansion paid for 100 percent by the federal government and now the $80 million federal pre-K grant.

Pence has requested a waiver that will allow the state to replace traditional Medicaid with a private health insurance program that requires copays for all services and charges premiums for certain low income residents.

One group celebrating the governor’s decision is Hoosiers Against Common Core, a Tea Party-aligned group.

“Heather Crossin with Hoosiers Against Common Core sent a victory note to supporters late Wednesday shortly after finding out Pence would oppose the federal preschool application,” the AP reports.

Under Pence’s leadership, Indiana was the first state to pull out of the national Common Core education standards after originally adopting them.

It is not clear going forward how Pence plans to fund the statewide pre-K program now that federal funds have been rejected.

“We’re just waiting for the Indiana solution to funding,” Stephen Smith, the board chairman and interim CEO for United Way of Allen County told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “If he’s going to decline federal money, he suggests there is a Hoosier way to do this, and it’s better without having to answer to Uncle Sam. We’re just anxiously waiting for his proposal for funding.”

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