Why Indiana often leaves pre-K voucher program out of the conversation

Cynthia Randolph-Vaughn, of Cindy’s Center For Young Learners, a level 4 child care center, talks about the importance of pre-kindergarten. Mykal McEldowney, IndyStar

Editor’s note: This story was produced by Chalkbeat Indiana, a nonprofit news website that covers education.

School choice advocates wield heavy influence in Indiana, but not all of them have fully thrown their weight behind the state’s newest voucher program: pre-K.

Both of Indiana’s voucher programs were born from the same idea of educational choice, which allows low-income families to use public money to choose the best school for their children, regardless of whether it’s public or private.

But the preschool program, On My Way Pre-K, doesn’t enjoy the same kind of support among Indiana conservatives as its K-12 counterpart. That reality speaks to widespread attitudes toward preschool — that it’s the purview of the family, not the government.

On My Way Pre-K is in its fifth year of a measured launch, in stark contrast to the rapid expansion of K-12 vouchers that made Indiana’s one of the nation’s largest and broadest programs.

“Determining why folks choose to support one aspect and not another … sometimes it’s perplexing,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, noting that both pre-K and K-12 vouchers are grounded in the tenet that parents know what is in the best interest of their children.

Indiana’s business community largely drove the state’s push for pre-K, making an economic argument for giving a head start to children from low-income backgrounds. Five years in, On My Way Pre-K serves 3,517 4-year-olds across the state. Eligible parents receive vouchers of up to $6,800 to send their children to a top-rated preschool program, be that at a school, a daycare center, a church, or a private home.

Now Indiana is approaching a critical decision over whether to grow the program by increasing funding or expanding income eligibility. Early childhood advocates, pointing to research showing the benefits of preschool, are seeking a program that’s accessible to more families.

But it remains to be seen how effective their arguments will be against critics’ deep-rooted beliefs and doubts about the benefits of pre-K.

The On My Way Pre-K program

The notion that early childhood education should fall to the family — not the state — reveals itself in how the state’s school system is set up.

Although the state fully funds kindergarten, children in Indiana aren’t required to go to school until they are 7. Generally, preschools don’t have to meet any educational standards, which made it difficult to find qualified providers in the rollout of On My Way Pre-K. And the preschool program isn’t considered education in the way as K-12 is, as it’s run by a different governmental department — the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, not the Indiana Department of Education.

Indiana earmarked $22 million this year for the preschool vouchers, the only state preschool system. It is expected to spend more than $150 million on K-12 vouchers, which serve about 3% of Indiana students.

There’s hesitancy to dedicate more funds and expand preschool because there’s still a fundamental question of whether government, through public schooling, should be extended beyond kindergarten, said Rob Enlow, president of EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

“I think there are a lot of people on all sides of the aisle saying, ‘Hey, this is my responsibility, this is a family responsibility,’” Enlow said.