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State-supported preschool pilot delayed for year

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana’s first state-supported preschool program isn’t getting started as fast as some lawmakers had hoped.

GOP Gov. Mike Pence pushed the plan for low-income children to attend pre-kindergarten programs as a top priority during the 2014 legislative session.

Lawmakers approved a bill calling for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration to pick five counties around the state for a pilot program. The law – and the money that will fund the pilot – isn’t effective until July 1. And the bill also requires the state agency to seek private donations to cover some of the cost.

Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis, sent a letter Monday expressing disappointment that the FSSA is “delaying” implementation.

“The suspension of this program means another class of Hoosier kids will lose an opportunity to receive a world-class early education,” he said. “Because the Family and Social Services Administration cannot complete their work on time, it seems we must disappoint parents and students alike who were looking forward to finally being able to offer their children what other states have offered for some time.”

But the administration never promised it would start this fall.

Pence education adviser Claire Fiddian-Green told The Journal Gazette in March that the most likely timeline for the pilot to be up and running would be fall 2015.

FSSA spokeswoman Marni Lemons said the agency faces several steps required by the legislature, such as formulating a way to track the academic progress of the children from preschool to third grade and gaining approvals from the State Board of Education and the State Budget Committee.

“This is not going to be ready to roll out for fall of 2014,” Lemons said. “There are a lot of requirements that the law listed.”

She said the agency would soon announce the process for picking the five counties for the pilot program.

Under the law, the Family and Social Services Administration will create and run the program using up to $10 million in reversions from that agency’s existing budget. Millions in private donations also are required.

Children in homes up to 127 percent of the federal poverty level – or an income of about $30,000 for a family of four – would be eligible for pre-kindergarten grants of $2,500 to $6,800 per student.

Public schools and private providers are eligible as long as they meet certain accreditation requirements.

The number of children to be served depends on the funding raised, but it is expected to be at least 1,000 and could be as high as 4,000.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.