Indiana budget doubts loom over pre-K, school funding

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana legislative leaders are advocating a go-slow approach to expanding the state-funded preschool program and warning there might be little money to boost school spending in the next state budget.

The pre-K program was launched in five of Indiana’s 92 counties last year to widespread interest: Officials received applications for more than double the 2,500 openings for low-income children that the $10 million in state funding allowed.

Top Republican legislators are in line with GOP Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb’s support for a slow growth as opposed to what his election rival, Democrat John Gregg, pushed during his campaign — adding 20,000 4-year-olds in the first year of a statewide program.

The size of the budget is a key factor, given that state tax revenue growth has been slower than anticipated for the past eight months and is 1.6 percent, or about $75 million, below projections for the fiscal year that started July 1, according to the State Budget Agency.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he believed adding 5,000 children next year — a cost of about $20 million — could be reasonable, although state funding should remain directed to low-income families.

“You can’t just jump into a universal program until we’re prepared to pay for that and the price tag is quite substantial,” Bosma said.

The GOP-dominated Legislature will be considering the preschool program expansion as part of the new two-year state budget that will be drawn up during the session that starts in early January.

Latrice Stumpf, whose 4-year-old daughter attends an Indianapolis preschool through the state program, said she wouldn’t be able to afford the same quality of preschool without it, and that a slow expansion would be a “big disappointment.”

“I think in order for us to get our children on a path where they can compete in college and the workforce we need to start early,” said Stumpf, who was at the Statehouse last week with advocates supporting pre-K expansion as lawmakers were sworn into office.

Though Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said the state should be cautious, he thinks doubling the number of counties is a “prudent move.” Currently, the program is in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties.

“It continues to show support for the program but it doesn’t get us all-in on spending before we have some answers,” Long said.

Some of the outnumbered legislative Democrats want a more aggressive preschool push, although program advocates say they are fine with the measured approach.

“This is not going to happen overnight,” said Andrew Cullen, a United Way of Central Indiana consultant who’s helping lead a lobbying effort for expansion. “Some parts of the state are ready for an expansion and others still have some work to do but they need the funding to be ready for an expansion.”

Economists are scheduled to provide updated tax revenue projections Dec. 15, which will used to guide early work on the new state budget. Bosma said he expects a tighter state budget, which could mean a smaller boost in state funding than the 2.3 percent increase included in the current two-year spending plan.

Longtime education lobbyist Dennis Costerison said that’s likely to mean less money for school districts with shrinking student enrollments, which are mostly in urban and rural areas.

“It’s way too early to say there’s going to be massive cuts or anything like that — we’re not to that point,” said Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. “Even for those who may be getting some more money, it might not be as much as they received the last two years.”

 

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