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Pre-k heads to ballot: $1.8 million adds $16 to annual taxes

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Voters in the next four weeks will determine whether to foot the bill for 4-year-olds from economically disadvantaged families to attend full-day early childhood education classes.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. is asking taxpayers to pay an additional $1.8 million annually for seven years to at least partially fund prekindergarten. If approved in the Nov. 6 referendum, the funds would benefit about half of the school district’s estimated 900 4-year-olds whose families cannot afford to enroll their kids in prekindergarten now. The other half would not qualify for the income-based assistance.

The school district’s 2013 budget, which must be approved by the state, calls for spending of nearly $110 million. Local school leaders expect the state to trim the BCSC budget by about $2.5 million, however. If the prekindergarten referendum passes, it would represent roughly 1.6 percent of the

district’s total budget for 2013.

The question

The school referendum that will appear on most Bartholomew County ballots:

“For the seven calendar years immediately following the holding of the referendum, shall the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation impose a property tax rate that does not exceed five cents ($0.05) on each one hundred dollars ($100) of assessed valuation and that is in addition to all other property tax levies imposed by the school corporation?”

Approval of the early education initiative would cost taxpayers owning a $100,000 home about $16 a year for the seven-year commitment. Passage of the referendum would raise the school district’s property tax rate 5 cents per $100 of assessed value, from 89 cents this year to about 94 cents next year.

Officials at local public, private and parochial schools agree that early childhood education typically results in better academic performance.

But questions linger about how publicly funded prekindergarten could affect enrollment at the private and parochial schools.

Some are also asking whether expanding access to prekindergarten would increase the overall number of 4-year-olds who receive structured instruction, or merely shift a portion of the same number of children from private/parochial to public school desks.

Of the 4-year-olds who live in the townships covered by Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.:

  • About 350 receive full- or part-day instruction in private or parochial facilities.
  • About 180 go to the full-day Busy Bees Academy, a pilot program funded from parent tuition and donations from the Community Education Coalition.
  • About 200 economically disadvantaged children receive federally funded instruction at BCSC for half a day, four days a week.
  • About 170 receive no instruction.

However, funding for Busy Bees is scheduled to end next year, meaning about 260 of the local 4-year-olds would not go to prekindergarten unless the referendum passes. This includes 170 who don’t receive instruction today and an estimated half of the Busy Bees students who are currently getting scholarships.

The extra $1.8 million raised by the referendum would:

  • Pay to expand prekindergarten for the economically disadvantaged children to full-day, five days a week.
  • Allow for the continuation of Busy Bees.
  • Offer the remaining 170 4-year-olds access to attend prekindergarten either through BCSC or at private or parochial schools.

Even if voters approve the referendum, parents whose children do not qualify for free/reduced lunches will continue to have to pay tuition for their children to go to prekindergarten either at BCSC or private/parochial schools.

The benefits

Local educators point to numerous scientific studies that indicate early childhood education fosters greater academic achievement and causes more children to graduate from high school and college.

According to Robert G. Lynch, economics professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., long-term studies of early childhood education also have indicated that:

  • Fewer people commit crimes.
  • Fewer people depend on welfare and other social programs.
  • Government generates more revenues and incurs fewer expenditures.

Investments in early childhood education generate the greatest return, said John Burnett, president and chief executive officer of the Community Education Coalition, a local nonprofit that supports Busy Bees, among other efforts.

Burnett said that the education coalition for years has focused on reducing the high school dropout rate and increasing local opportunities for higher learning. The group, made up of educators and business leaders, concluded that some of those problems could be addressed more effectively through earlier intervention such as expanding prekindergarten.

Indiana has not been on the cutting edge of this movement nationally. Instead, it is one of 10 states that do not publicly fund prekindergarten.

Only 4 in 10 Hoosier children ages 3 and 4 are currently enrolled in prekindergarten, according to the office of Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. Only six states have a lower percentage of children in prekindergarten.

BCSC Superintendent John Quick said that the lack of state funding means it’s up to communities to shoulder the cost of providing prekindergarten.

Quick said the need for early childhood education in Columbus crystallized after the 2008 flood, which temporarily closed the Cummins Child Development Center and permanently shuttered Nancy’s Nook and Nursery, which had served 127 children, from infants to sixth-graders, with prekindergarten and other programs.

Busy Bees Academy, now in its third and perhaps final year, addressed some of that need by providing early childhood education in the Richard L Johnson Early Education Center, 1209 Sycamore St., and in some classrooms at Clifty Creek and Taylorsville elementary schools.

However, Quick said, without the additional public dollars, “Busy Bees would be in jeopardy.”

Instruction for the economically disadvantaged kids would continue, he said, but could not be expanded to full-day.

“We would have to work with all the stakeholders and decide next steps for (the) 2013-14 school year,” Quick said.

Private options

About 20 private or parochial institutions offer preschool in Columbus. Ten have formed Columbus Association of Private Preschools to advocate for the private preschools in discussions with BCSC.

“We believe every 4-year-old child should have an opportunity for early childhood education,” said Barb Newton, director of the First Presbyterian Church preschool, one of the CAPP members.

Newton said CAPP members also know that some kids do not have access to prekindergarten, often for financial reasons. And frequently, the ones who do not have access could benefit the most.

All of the private preschools also have room for additional students, she said.

Mike Gorday, director of ABC-Stewart School, said CAPP members are trying to make sure that the number of children with access to early childhood education increases — without undermining the private/parochial providers.

Any time you add a new provider, Gorday said, enrollment at the other schools declines.

First Presbyterian, for example, has 165 total students this year. That includes 42 4-year-olds, although the school has had significantly more than that in previous years. The preschool employs 30 people.

ABC-Stewart, which serves kids from age 2 through sixth grade, also employs 30.

BCSC and CAPP plan to implement some mechanisms to make sure that if the referendum passes, enrollment at the private schools increases, too:

  • BCSC will offer free morning and evening transportation to all students who go to private preschools. Parents still would have to pick up students for half-day programs ending in the middle of the day to prevent disrupting regular bus routes. Currently, BCSC is offering the transportation only for students who receive scholarships to private schools. Busy Bees students are bused regardless of whether they receive scholarships.
  • BCSC will enroll two economically disadvantaged children for each paying child at its Busy Bees prekindergarten, up from one disadvantaged child per paying child today.
  • Community Education Coalition will make available $100,000 in scholarships per year for the 10 CAPP schools and an additional $200,000 for technology.

Cost factor

Burnett said that public funds primarily will help parents who want — but cannot afford to send — their kids to attend prekindergarten.

Busy Bees charges parents $80 per child for five full days of instruction. Parents whose children qualify for free or reduced lunch pay $5 per week per child.

Busy Bees has a waiting list of about 50 kids, Burnett said. All of them would qualify for the reduced price.

Local public school officials said they believe the vast majority of the 170 kids who do not have access to early childhood education lack the funds to pay for it.

However, Newton wonders how many parents will decide against enrolling their children in prekindergarten even if the service is provided for free. If many of them decline, the overall share of 4-year-olds who receive prekindergarten instruction might stay relatively level — although private schools might see some enrollment declines as more parents enroll their 4-year-olds in the public school program.

Newton and Gorday emphasized that all stakeholders have had good discussions and that BCSC has listened to the concerns of the private providers.

They all are convinced that increasing the number of children with early childhood education will improve the community.

“We’re all trying to work together,” Gorday said.

Nonetheless, CAPP is not taking a stance on the referendum.

“I think it has to be up to the voters,” Newton said.

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