Early Childhood

Glenda Ritz calls Pence's preschool decision "bad for children"

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz battled over education policy for years, but they agreed on dumping Common Core and PARCC.

Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today criticized Gov. Mike Pence for halting the state’s efforts to seek an $80 million federal preschool grant “without warning.”

“Whatever his motivation, one thing is clear: Pence’s about-face with little or no notice to those who had worked in concert with his administration on the grant application is bad for our state and our children,” Ritz said in a statement.

“The governor expressed concern about federal requirements that would have come with this money, but thus far has failed to provide any specifics,” she said.

Ritz wasn’t the first person to weigh in on Pence’s surprising decision. Reaction to his choice, which leaves $80 million in federal funds on the table, has been mixed.

Here’s a roundup of what people have said.

Ritz went on to lay out her view of the grant’s value:

“Here are the facts. First, the grant did not require a state or local match. Funds that we rejected will now be used by other states. Second, the funds would not have resulted in kindergarteners taking tests to qualify to enter kindergarten. But, third, we would finally have had the ability to ensure that our children come to Kindergarten ready to learn and these funds would have helped form the basis for their future educational attainment. We need high quality early childhood education.”

When Pence’s change of direction on the grant was first reported by Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully on Thursday, it shocked Indiana’s early education advocates. Chalkbeat quoted Stand For Children executive Director Justin Ohlemiller saying he was caught off guard by Pence’s decision:

“The announcement left us shocked and troubled,” said Stand For Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller, whose organization advocates for change in school districts and at the state level. “Our hope is that there will be a clearer explanation and more detail in the coming days about why the sudden decision to not move forward. Our first reaction is that we’re shocked given the momentum that has been built with multiple parties working toward this goal, not to mention we seemed to be in a very strong position to vie for the funding.”

In a guest column for The Statehouse File on Friday, Pence argued the state should go its own way on preschool. Pence wrote:

“It’s important to note that many early learning programs across the country have not been successful over the years. On behalf of the children the pilot is designed to serve, it is imperative that Indiana get this right. Indiana’s program is based on parental choice and includes the flexibility and accountability needed to ensure children are in programs that get real results.

“It is important not to allow the lure of federal grant dollars to define our state’s mission and programs. More federal dollars do not necessarily equal success, especially when those dollars come with requirements and conditions that will not help – and may even hinder – running a successful program of our own making.

“An important part of our pre-K pilot is the requirement that we study the program so we understand what works and what doesn’t. I do not believe it is wise policy to expand our pre-K pilot before we have a chance to study and learn from the program.”

The state’s move to pass on the grant brought a flood of opinion over the weekend about why Pence made the move and whether it was the right decision.

The Associated Press wrote that social conservatives and tea party groups considered it a victory that Pence was persuaded not to work with the federal government on preschool. The AP’s Tom LoBianco wrote about efforts to scuttle the grant by Hoosiers Against Common Core’s co-founder Heather Crossin:

“Crossin is hardly a stalwart Pence supporter; her group lambasted the governor for formally withdrawing the state from Common Core education standards earlier this year, while replacing them with standards strikingly similar to the federal rules. And a little more than a week ago, her group chastised Pence for his creation of a “data czar” to oversee reams of government data, including student information.

“Many similar groups, long considered Pence’s political base stemming to his years in Congress, have expressed frustration at his decision to seek an expansion of Medicaid using a state-run alternative.

“But Wednesday they were cheering the governor.”

Earlier this month, Hoosiers Against Common Core described the grant as expanding “taxpayer funded day care.” When advocates complained that group’s lobbying cost the state $80 million that could have helped poor children prepare for kindergarten, it responded by arguing Indiana’s chances of winning the grant were far from certain. The group posted on its website:

“The truth is that the categories and eligible award amounts were determined based upon the state’s population of four-year-old children eligible for the program, nothing more.

“The only thing that makes a state more likely to win is to agree to the 18 pages of federal requirements stipulated throughout the grant, such as mandating full day care, extensive testing, and data collection on children who are only four-years-old.”

The Indiana State Teachers Union, which is often critical of Pence, drew a direct line between the activism of Hoosiers Against Common Core and Pence’s decision. On its blog, ISTA wrote:

“Some have also speculated that the governor was concerned that by accepting the federal grant, the state’s preschool program couldn’t be folded into Indiana’s controversial school voucher program. Whatever the backdrop and underlying motivation, one thing is certain: thousands of Indiana’s neediest children will once again pay the price for loyalty to narrow political agendas.”

Over the weekend, the Indianapolis Star reported that the debate over the grant exposed a rift on the political right between those who are pushing hard for more preschool funding in the state and those who are skeptical of state-funded learning before kindergarten. The Star’s Robert King wrote:

“The governor also expressed concerns about unspecified ‘requirements and conditions’ associated with the federal grant that could hinder Indiana’s program.

“But corporate supporters of preschool education say the state has plenty of resources at its disposal — including financial support from the private sector — to move forward more quickly.

“‘Indiana has a unique, but urgent opportunity to seize the moment as the private and public sector are ready to take a bold step to educate our young people,'” said John Elliott, a spokesman for Kroger grocery chain.

“‘We respectfully disagree with the governor’s decision not to pursue $80 million in federal funding and ask that he reconsider his decision,” Elliott said. “There are enough engaged stakeholders focused on this priority to help build upon the administration’s pilot program and ensure rapid, successful and measurable growth in early childhood programs.’

“On the other side of the issue are social conservative groups — another traditional base of political support for Pence.

“His rejection of the federal grant was greeted warmly by American Family Association of Indiana, which is skeptical of the benefits of preschool programs and dubious of putting 4-year-olds into government programs.”

Some of Pence’s critics speculated that the decision was driven more by his presidential ambitions than by Indiana’s needs. (One of his potential primary opponents, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also was criticized for deciding not to apply for the same federal preschool grant.) The Indiana-based blogger Doug Masson wrote:

“The cynical mind, however, immediately jumps to Gov. Pence’s presidential ambitions. Even bearing in mind that our share of this federal money is coming out of our pockets anyway and will now be going to some other state instead, I think we can all agree that forgoing $80 million to improve the education of young Hoosiers is a small price to pay to ease the minds of Iowa and New Hampshire caucus and primary voters.”

The editorial board of the Indianapolis Star joined Pence’s critics, writing in an editorial over the weekend that the decision was “perplexing and disappointing.” It wrote:

“Mike Pence, once a skeptic about the value of early childhood education, has taken major steps forward on the issue in the past two years. He was beginning to lead on the issue in a way that no previous Indiana governor had shown. His sudden step back is a hard blow for the state. And worse, for its children and their families.”

Early childhood literacy

How to make a good reader? Combine in-school tutoring with hundreds of books for toddlers and babies

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

A new literacy program for children from babies to third grade will focus on tutoring students and encouraging reading at an early age as it works with 100 families in the Munger Elementary-Middle School area.

The 3-year pilot program will combine the resources of 80 volunteers, the Munger school staff, and Brilliant Detroit, a social service organization. Brilliant Detroit will house a national program called Raising a Reader, which will ensure that the families receive as many as 100 books each over the next three years to read to babies and toddlers.

“We believe the city of Detroit is turning around,” said former state Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan, who is spearheading the program. “But we understand that Detroit cannot turn around effectively if the schools don’t turn around, and that can’t happen unless the children learn to read.”

The program is part of a state-wide push to help more children learn to read before a new state law takes effect in 2020 that will force schools to hold back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level. This year, fewer than 10 percent of Detroit students met that grade-level threshold.

Announced today, the program launches in January and has more than $20,000 in funding.

Munger Principal Donnell Burroughs said students who received the lowest reading test scores will likely be the ones who receive tutoring.

“Here at Munger we want our students to continue to grow,” Burroughs said. “We will identify certain families and students from preschool to third grade and they’ll work with individual tutors who come into the school every day.”

Students will work with a tutor in groups of three for 40 minutes a day.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley described another benefit of the program: helping students with disabilities.

“Perhaps an unintended consequence of the work that’s happening here is we can identify developmental delays and disabilities earlier for intervention.”

Calley, whose daughter has autism, is an advocate for people with disabilities. Studies have shown that early intervention improves outcomes.  

“We still have so far to go there,” he added. “This is a reading initiative, but it’s gonna have benefits beyond reading.”

Special education has been a pressing concern for education advocates in the state. The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools in early December. Among them was a priority to fully fund special education.

Plans to continue or expand the program are unclear, and depend on the pilot’s success. The effort is supported by 15 local and state partners, including Gov. Rick Snyder and Raising a Reader.

Pre-k push

Memphis gets back into education game with vote to fund pre-K classrooms

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A pre-K student plays with blocks at the Porter-Leath Early Childhood Center.

The Memphis City Council committed on Tuesday to find a way to invest at least $8 million in pre-kindergarten classrooms before 2019, marking their first big investment in Memphis schools in four years.

The measure, which was approved 11-0, did not provide a funding stream for the multimillion-dollar need, but essentially holds Memphis to find a way to come up with $8 million for 1,000 pre-K seats that the city stands to lose with the expiration of a major federal grant in 2019.

Councilwoman Janis Fullilove recused her initial yes vote without comment.

Councilman Kemp Conrad, who introduced the resolution, told his fellow council members that this measure is a way for the city to once again fund programs that help children. Tuesday’s vote marks the first new money for  Memphis classrooms since 2013 when city and county school systems merged.

“We can make a statement, a formalized action to the mayor who is very supportive of this issue, as a policy-making body,” Conrad said. “We’re making a statement to other funding bodies, Shelby County Schools, the Shelby County Commission and private entities that the city can come to the table with money.”

At an executive session two weeks ago, Mayor Jim Strickland said he supported the initiative and that the seats could mean the difference in children developing the reading skills they need by third grade to be successful in school.

Councilman Bill Morrison, a former Memphis teacher, brought forth an amendment before the vote that would have expanded the measure to also guarantee funding for schools beyond pre-K, such as after-school programs and career and technical training. However, he withdrew his amendment after Councilman Berlin Boyd suggested he bring the issue as a separate resolution in the future.

Currently, about 7,420 of the city’s 4-year-olds attend free school programs, and a coalition of nonprofit groups led by Seeding Success has been pushing to maintain — and even grow — the number of free, needs-based pre-K seats in Memphis. The group estimates that about 1,000 additional seats are needed to offer free pre-K to all who need it.

Mark Sturgis, the executive director of Seeding Success, told Chalkbeat after the meeting that the council vote will spur further collaboration between private and public funders to bolster pre-K in Memphis. Seeding Success will help to lead a closed-door meeting tomorrow between City Council members, Shelby County Commissioners and philanthropic and private donors.

“Now, it’s about leveraging the momentum from tonight with coordinated conversations,” Sturgis said. “We have to build the infrastructure to do this right. It’s all about creating quality pre-K.”

Charles Lampkin, a Memphis parent whose three sons were students in pre-K classrooms, said during public comment that the free early education made a big impact on this family’s life.

“My (now) first-grader is reading on grade-level and above and my kindergartener is at grade level,” he said, adding that his third son was currently enrolled in pre-K classes at Porter-Leath. “I don’t know what my children would have been like if they did not have that benefit, where they would be in terms of performance. There’s a lot of disparity here with our children. Fortunately for me, my children have benefited.”