prek debate

Two preschool proposals are on the table, and one has already faced criticism for adding a pathway to vouchers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at IPS School 55.

With Indiana’s preschool pilot program about to expire, there’s plenty of public support for a plan that ensures it continues. But there’s little consensus about how much to expand it — and how to fund it.

But after today, there are two main proposals on the table — one simple bill from senators that would double the current program and another more complicated plan from House lawmakers that also adds another pathway through which families can access taxpayer funded vouchers for private school tuition.

That aspect of the House bill was opposed by some lawmakers and community members today, who want to support preschool but worry about increasing access to vouchers. Critics say vouchers divert money from public schools, while supporters argue they give families more educational choices.

Generally, Indiana Democrats widely support scaling the program up to more counties. And some Republican lawmakers, like House Speaker Brian Bosma, want to see the program double or even triple in size. But others want it to grow more conservatively or not at all.

Indiana began its statewide preschool program in 2014, setting aside $10 million per year for low-income families to spend at preschool providers that met safety standards and offered programs that combined academics and child care.

Two years later, lawmakers and community advocates have signaled they want to keep the program moving forward, citing research that shows preschool gives students a jump start before elementary school and offers longer-term benefits, too.

Here’s a guide to the two proposals discussed in the Senate and House education committee meetings. Only one bill is likely to continue toward becoming law, although both plans could change over the next few months. It’s also possible both plans will stall.

For more education bills we’re watching in the General Assembly this year, check out our full list.

SENATE PLAN

Bill: Senate Bill 276, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. The bill will likely see a vote in a committee meeting in the next few weeks.

Summary: The bill proposes expanding the state’s preschool program from five to 10 counties, at a cost of $20 million per year for next two years.

Comments: Holdman appealed to lawmakers who might not want to make a large financial investment in preschool by noting that this plan doesn’t go as far as a “universal” plan would because it would continue to restrict which families are eligible to use the preschool scholarships and which providers are allowed to accept them.

“Our program is very unique in that we are targeting disadvantaged kids,” Holdman said during a Senate Education Committee hearing on Jan. 25. “We are requiring an academic component to be part of the qualification to participate,” he said, something that “has given us some positive results.”

But other senators weren’t convinced that expansion is the right move, especially given the potential price tag. Advocates from the United Way of Central Indiana have suggested $50 million per year would be a more appropriate figure to satisfy demand for preschool, rather than the $20 million proposed.

“We don’t have anywhere near $50 million to do this,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, a Senate Education Committee member and a key player in drafting the state’s budget.

HOUSE PLAN

Bill: House Bill 1004, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. The bill passed out of the House Education Committee Tuesday and next heads to the full House.

Summary: The bill proposes expanding the state’s preschool program from five to 10 counties and loosening income requirements to allow more families to participate. Preschool providers could also apply for grants — which would be matched by local philanthropies — to establish programs or expand existing ones. Perhaps most controversially, the bill would let families who get a state preschool scholarship also receive for a voucher for kindergarten, meaning they could access the state’s voucher program sooner than rules currently allow.

Comments: Behning said it’s important to both expand the number of families who qualify for the state’s program and to give providers an opportunity to create more “high-quality” programs that meet Indiana’s criteria.

While most testimony on the bill was supportive, the part of the bill dealing with K-12 vouchers came in for criticism. Behning said the provision was meant to smooth out the process for families, and he doesn’t see it as a voucher expansion.

“It is really focused on making sure parents have a seamless opportunity to put their students in a school that they think best meets the needs of their students,” Behning said. “It’s an opportunity to keep that without having to disrupt the child’s education plan.”

But Scott Russell, with the Washington Township parent council, saw it as interfering with the main point of the bill — to expand preschool. Russell pointed out that the potential added cost of the voucher provision was much greater than the cost of the parts of the bill that deal with preschool, according to the fiscal note attached to the bill.

“The bill in its current form ties together the widely popular idea of expanding our preschool pilot program with a controversial (voucher proposal),” Russell said. “A preschool funding bill is not the place for the expansion of vouchers.”

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.