Nancy Vaughan column: Pre-K program continues to develop, but challenges remain

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By Nancy Vaughan | For The Herald Bulletin Apr 28, 2019 
     
Enrollment is now open for the second year of On My Way Pre-K in Madison County, a grant program that provides access to high-quality early learning for the year prior to kindergarten.
 
As potential changes to the program are debated at the Statehouse, families with children who are age 4 and will be entering kindergarten in 2020 can apply online at www.onmywayprek.org.
 
In its first year, the program served 86 Madison County children. Statistically, these children will have a better transition to kindergarten this fall.
 
The program is entirely free to families through funding provided by the state with a required match through the community sponsoring organization. United Way of Madison County is the local sponsor. This is an opportunity for children from families that might not otherwise be able to provide it to have a foundational experience that prepares them for success in school and in life.
 
There are requirements: family income at or below 127 percent of the federal poverty level; parents working or enrolled in school or job training; and selection of a qualified provider who has an opening.
 
The grant requires the provider be a Level 3 or 4 on the state’s Paths to Quality rating system, and Madison County educators and community partners have worked hard to develop quality On My Way Pre-K openings; however, enrollment challenges have limited program access in all 20 counties that offered the program last year.
 
While work requirements for Indiana’s program allow the state to comingle federal child care funds with the state’s $22 million, expanding the program to more children and lowering the required local match, it also bars children whose parents have disabilities and can’t work as well as those being raised by grandparents.
 
The income cap has created an additional challenge to filling seats. Current income limits are 127 percent of the federal poverty level; for a family of two, with one parent working full-time and one child, the annual income limit would be $21,480. For a family of four, with two full-time working parents, the annual income limit would be $32,700.
 
Lawmakers are considering changes to give “limited eligibility” to allow up to 20 percent of grants for children with disabled parents or living with grandparents or in homes with an income up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level while also expanding access to all counties.
 
Because the changes do not include additional funding, we are unlikely to reach our goal of serving 200 children in Madison County. We want our share, however, and encourage all families who think they might qualify to go ahead and apply online. There are staff to assist from that point forward.
 
We celebrate all progress toward school readiness and hope the state will continue to move toward full funding of preschool.
 
There remains a lot of work to do. Indiana ranked second-to-last in the nation for access to pre-K last year, and because of the On My Way Pre-K program’s work requirement, the National Institute for Early Education Research classifies it as child care rather than education. Indiana thus remains one of just six states in the nation that does not fund preschool.
 
On My Way Pre-K served 2,423 children across the 20 counties last year and the state hopes to add at least another 500 children this year. We will work diligently with community partners here to enroll eligible children in Madison County before the Aug. 1 deadline.
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