County added to state program: Funds will help families pay for prekindergarten

Bartholomew County is among 15 Indiana counties selected by the state to receive funding to help qualifying families afford pre-kindergarten.

State funding will be offered for income-qualifying students in Bartholomew Consolidated and Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. who enroll for the On My Way Pre-K program beginning in the 2018-19 school year.

While both private and public prekindergarten programs may qualify, families cannot have income that exceeds 127 percent of the federal poverty guideline, according to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. The 2017 Early Learning Advisory Council annual report estimates 6,700 4-year-olds would be eligible in the 15 counties being added, state officials said.

Besides income guidelines, state lawmakers set additional qualifications this year to ensure parents and guardians are either working, seeking employment or going to school.

That’s one reason it’s too early to speculate how much money the county will receive and how many children will be served, said Chad Phillips, who will become BCSC assistant superintendent of business services next month.

“It will depend on how many families meet the state requirements, as well as how well we do getting the word out,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly expanded the prekindergarten program from five pilot counties — Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh — to 20 counties in House Enrolled Act 1004.

After 27 counties submitted readiness statements, each was evaluated on the following criteria.

Readiness to implement and sustain the program, including the ability to raise the statutorily required community contribution.

Involvement of all community partners that would support a mixed delivery system that includes public and private schools, child care home providers, child care centers and ministries.

The number of potentially eligible children.

Whether the county was defined as rural or primarily rural by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The kindergarten retention rate in the county.

In addition to Bartholomew, the following Indiana counties were also added to the program: DeKalb, Delaware, Elkhart, Floyd, Grant, Harrison, Howard, Kosciusko, Madison, Marshall, Monroe, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe and Vigo.

Since the state has expressed preference to rural counties, BCSC officials were pleasantly surprised to learn they were selected for the expansion, Philips said.

But most of the information regarding the county’s readiness has long been documented from earlier attempts to gain funding, he said.

Looking ahead, BCSC will begin working with the state in hopes of starting registration of qualifying students in August, Phillips said. That way, some families may be in a position to receive financial help for the second semester of the coming school year, he said.

After qualified families are identified, the biggest anticipated obstacle will be helping parents or guardians get through the bureaucratic red tape, Phillips said.

“It’s pretty cumbersome,” he said. “It’s very similar to applying for SNAP (Food Stamps) benefits.

The legislation requires counties to secure a community contribution of a minimum of 5 percent of the state’s total investment in the county’s program, a news release from the state explains.

Three years ago, BCSC proposed providing scholarships to an estimated 450 low-income 4-year-olds by seeking funding through a public referendum.

Taxpayers were asked to pay $1.8 million annually for seven years through a property tax increase of 5 cents per $100 assessed value

However, the ballot question on the November 2014 ballot lost 46 percent to 54 percent. A similar effort was defeated two years earlier.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.