State needs to put pre-K funding at top of priority list

About 160 fewer children are enrolled in prekindergarten classes this fall due to a loss of federal funds and grant dollars.

That means about 40 percent fewer children will have an opportunity to learn foundational education skills that can set a positive tone for learning.

That’s unfortunate.

What’s also unfortunate is that Bartholomew County, as well as all the other Hoosier counties, must rely on a patchwork of federal funds, grants and taxpayer support to pay for their local prekindergarten services.

It’s a patchwork that isn’t always able to stay stitched together, as Bartholomew County has learned.

The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. was notified by the Indiana Department of Education to expect less federal Title I funds for this school year.

Additionally, even though the district was awarded an early education grant through the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, it required coming up with $342,000 for the local match. However, community partners already had fulfilled a three-year commitment to provide matching dollars for prekindergarten programming.

That double blow led Bartholomew Consolidated to reduce its prekindergarten enrollment capacity this fall. District officials reported in August that pre-K enrollment was nearing its 240-student capacity — well below the roughly 400 pre-K students served during the 2016-17 school year.

Previously, the district has funded pre-K with a combination of tuition fees, Title I funding, grants and previous-year tax collections in excess of the district’s levy. However, excess tax levy collections are not something the district wants to rely on annually to fund pre-K.

The idea of using taxes to pay for prekindergarten has proved to be unpopular in Columbus. The school district twice asked Columbus taxpayers to support for pre-K education for 450 low-income children through public referendums, but both failed.

Bartholomew County received some good news when it was among 15 additional Indiana counties named in June to receive funding that will help more qualifying families register their children for pre-K. However, On My Way Pre-K funding won’t begin until January and restrictions placed on families qualifying for pre-K may reduce the number of children the district will be able to serve, said Chad Phillips, BCSC assistant superintendent for business services and the former title services director.

Bartholomew County’s significant reduction in pre-K enrollment this year — thus reduced educational services to young children who could benefit — is another example of why the state needs to fully commit to funding pre-kindergarten for all school districts.

A good education sets up a child for a greater chance at success in life, and many children could benefit from a head start through a pre-K program.

If Indiana truly wants to be a state that provides top-notch education — it lags well behind others, according to many metrics — then it needs to provide strong support for the educational system from start to finish. That means fully funding pre-K programs for school districts across the state.