Early Childhood

Democrats raise doubts about Ballard's preschool plan

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Preschoolers at Shepherd Community Center last year.

Democrats who are wary of some parts of Mayor Greg Ballard’s blockbuster $50 million proposal to help more children attend preschool across Indianapolis will offer their own preschool expansion plan later this month.

While some of Ballard’s allies are charging that Democrats are playing politics and putting at risk opportunities for poor Indianapolis children, both supporters of his plan and some of those with reservations say they are optimistic that expanding preschool can still happen.

“My Democratic friends have been in favor of pre-K until Republicans say, ‘let’s do this,'” said City-County Council member Aaron Freeman. “Amazingly, it’s a fight. Everybody’s got to have an alternative plan. Frankly, I’m sorry, but the time for deal making and the time for alternative plans is kind of gone.”

Even so, Democrats and Republicans have been holding talks in search of a compromise.

“We are 100 percent committed to getting preschool done for our children and for our city for 2015,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said.

From Ballard’s July announcement calling for preschool to be a central pillar in his plan to sustainably curb the city’s crime and education problem, there were signs that the political road ahead might not be smooth.

For instance, Council president Maggie Lewis and other prominent Democrats were noticeably absent from the announcement and soon after began raising concerns about Ballard’s preferred method of funding the program: eliminating the local homestead tax credit.

Ballard has argued that while cutting the homestead credit would cost some Indianapolis homeowners an average of $22 per year that they now save from their tax bills, it would be worth it to support 1,300 more spots for preschoolers and help local providers meet high-quality standards.

Democrats have countered that eliminating the tax credit would both cost some homeowners more and hurt the city’s 11 public school districts by also taking away more than $3 million they receive. But Ballard responded that the school districts would benefit significantly by enrolling more incoming students who were better prepared to start kindergarten because they had been to preschool first.

Council Vice President John Barth, a Democrat, said he plans to unveil an alternative to Ballard’s plan in time for the City-County Council’s next meeting on Sept. 22. Though Barth hasn’t finalized all the details of what his plan will entail, he’s sure that it won’t include using the elimination of the homestead tax credit as a funding source.

“The resistance to that funding mechanism is not new and is well known,” Barth said. “I am working on a proposal that gets specific and into the weeds on how a pre-K program would work in Indianapolis.”

Ballard’s staff and some Republican council members said they are open to considering alternative funding plans if it can assure the preschool plan happens.

“We appreciate and welcome any and all ideas that Councilman Barth would propose,” Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said. “The homestead tax is one sustainable source of funding preschool and putting more police officers on the street. However, we are open to any sustainable funding source and are eager to hear the Democratic counter-proposal for funding this.”

Kloth said he is in talks with Barth and others, including Lewis, to work through their differences with the mayor’s plan. Most of the negotiations are centered around how to fund the program, Barth said.

“To me, if we agree preschool is No. 1, then we need to re-balance the budget to demonstrate that,” Barth said. “That’s a painful process, but we’re working through that. I’m trying to navigate through the middle and get everyone on the same page.”

Republican Councilman Jeff Miller said he became a strong preschool proponent after he saw the learning gains his child made while attending a preschool program. He said he would be receptive to hearing an alternative to the mayor’s plan if it means more kids get to attend preschool.

Miller said there likely will be support for an alternative plan among Republicans on the council.

“For me, it’s never been about the funding having to come from here, here or here,” Miller said. “The funding has to come from a source that is viable. It felt like the homestead credit was a good way to go. But I’ll be the first to say that if there are other plans out there, I’m willing to listen to them.”

Others aren’t open to deal making.

Councilman Steve Tally, a Democrat, said he opposes the mayor’s proposal because of it will cost money that now goes to public schools, libraries and other services. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, stands to lose $734,000 if the homestead tax is eliminated.

“In addition to increasing the tax burden on our residents, it disproportionately impacts people who live in very modest homes and our seniors who have paid their mortgages off in some of the most challenging neighborhoods,” Tally said.

Some councilmembers just think it’s time to eliminate the homestead tax credit for good.

“If there was a way to (fund preschool) with some other funding mechanism, I’d certainly consider it, but my concern is that any proposal that’s floated is going to be for the purpose of avoiding eliminating the homestead credit,” said Republican Councilman Will Gooden. “I’m afraid if they’re treated separately at this point, the can is once again going to get kicked down the road.”

Time is running out for the council to decide if it wants to use the tax credit elimination. By law, Kloth said, there is a Sept. 22 deadline to vote on the tax credit.

Meanwhile, education leaders and preschool advocates are waiting to see if the city will make a big commitment to preschool.

Ted Maple, president of preschool provider Day Nursery Association and a long time advocate for expanded preschool, said he doesn’t care how the city’s preschool program is funded as long as it is high quality.

“I’m hopeful we can come to an agreement as soon as possible,” Maple said. “We have too many children out there that need early childhood education. We as a community have waited too long to do the right thing for kids. If we put it off now, we’re at risk of putting it off again for a really long time.”

Early investment

Foundations put $50 million behind effort to improve lives of young Detroit children

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The heads of the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations, Rip Rapson and La June Montgomery announce a $50 million investment to support the new Hope Starts Here framework.

The two major foundations behind the creation of a ten-year plan to improve the lives of Detroit’s youngest children are putting up $50 million to help put the plan into action.

As they unveiled the new Hope Starts Here framework Friday morning, the Kellogg and Kresge foundations announced they would each spend $25 million in the next few years to improve the health and education of children aged birth to 8 in the city.

The money will go toward upgrading early childhood education centers, including a new Kresge-funded comprehensive child care center that the foundation says it hopes to break ground on next year at a location that has not yet been identified.

Other foundation dollars will go toward a just-launched centralized data system that will keep track of a range of statistics on the health and welfare of young children, and more training and support for early childhood educators.

The announcement at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History drew dozens of parents, educators and community leaders. Among them was Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti who said one of the major impediments to improving conditions for young children has been divisions between the various government and nonprofit entities that run schools, daycares and health facilities for young kids.

Vitti said the district would do its part to “to break down the walls of territorialism that has prevented this work from happening” in the past.

Watch the video of of the announcement here.

Detroit's future

In a city where 60 percent of young children live in poverty, a ten-year plan aims to improve conditions for kids

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

A coalition of community groups led by two major foundations has a plan to change the fortunes of Detroit’s youngest citizens.

The Hope Starts Here early childhood partnership is a ten-year effort to tackle a list of bleak statistics about young children in Detroit:

  • More than 60% of Detroit’s children 0-5 live in poverty — more than in any of the country’s 50 largest cities;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too early, compared to nine percent nationally;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too small, compared to eight percent nationally;
  • Detroit has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country;
  • Nearly 30,000 of eligible young Detroiters have no access to high-quality early learning or child care options.
  • That translates to learning problems later on, including the 86.5% of Detroit third graders who aren’t reading at grade level.

Hope Starts Here spells out a plan to change that. While it doesn’t identify specific new funding sources or propose a dramatic restructuring of current programs, the effort led by the Kresge Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, names six “imperatives” to improving children’s lives.

Among them: Promoting the health, development and wellbeing of Detroit children; supporting their parents and caregivers; increasing the overall quality of early childhood programs and improving coordination between organizations that work with young kids. The framework calls for more funding to support these efforts through the combined investments of governments, philanthropic organizations and corporations.

Read the full framework here: