Ritz and Gregg detail their statewide pre-k plan

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Superintendent Glenda Ritz and gubernatorial candidate John Gregg want to get elected.

Then they want to provide Pre-K for every four-year-old in the state, no matter how much their parents make.

Today Ritz and Gregg went to Amy Beverland Early Learning Center to outline how their plan would work and how much it would cost taxpayers.

“I think every child should have access to the best education we can provide for them,” said Amy Beverland Pre-K teacher Shannon Smith.

According to Ritz, lack of access to pre-k is the reason Indianapolis kindergartners tend to lag behind others in the state.

Ritz says over time, their Pre-K plan would save taxpayers money. That’s in part because right now, the state spends $32 million per year educating students who had to repeat kindergarten.

“Retention rate in IPS is 9.1% I think it is,” said Ritz. “In Fort Wayne, it’s a little over 2 percent because they’re not having kids being retained as a result of not being ready.”

Fort Wayne’s public schools have had a built-in pre-K program for years. Ritz says that’s why Fort Wayne students are better prepared for kindergarten, which creates a positive domino effect as they work through the grades.

To bring those benefits across Indiana, Ritz and Gregg plan to advance a statewide pre-K program if Ritz is re-elected and Gregg defeats Governor Mike Pence.

Just last week, Pence announced he is also in favor of statewide pre-K, after turning down an $80 million federal grant to do so. That grant, Ritz says, was only available to Arizona and Indiana, two states with little to no infrastructure for a statewide program.

The Ritz-Gregg plan would, in ever school district in the state, create coalitions of public, private and philanthropic groups that already offer pre-K.

“I think starting at 3, they’re so inquisitive, they’re so curious, their minds are just starting to form and wanting to learn more and more,” said Smith’s fellow pre-K teacher Michele Patton. “And you can just see it in their eyes when they learn something new. And it’s fun!”

The program Ritz and Gregg are proposing would give existing programs more money to fund more teachers and classrooms.

Eventually, the plan is to fund classroom spots for at least half of four-year-old Hoosiers, regardless of their parents’ income.

Gregg’s argument is that education is not a “welfare program”. He says it’s a basic human right.

“This is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” said Gregg. “This is a policy issue.”

The cost, they say, will be about $150 million the first year. Ritz and Gregg have already found $200 million in state resources they could pull together to fund the program.

Gregg reiterates that even without federal funding, the program would still be solvent. He claims savings from replacing the $80 million a year ISTEP test with something less expensive and more well-liked, plus unused funds from other budgets will cover the costs.

In a statement, Republican state senator Luke Kenley says while he’s open to having a conversation about a universal pre-K program, he cautions accepting that estimate.

“The true price tag of a universal pre-K system here in Indiana is uncertain, especially when you consider the long-term costs of a program like this one, which is designed to grow,” Kenley’s statement reads. “As we discuss this issue, we need to be careful not to make promises that we can’t keep. There is also a significant social policy shift embedded in the idea of universal pre-K, which lawmakers will need to carefully consider moving forward.”

Ritz and Gregg say the $150 million price tag represents less than 1 percent of the state’s overall budget. Even Republican lawmakers’ estimates of close to $300 million would be less than 2 percent.

Given the impact the program Gregg says he and business leaders and police chiefs believe would have on society as a whole, that higher number is still not enough to scare the two politicians from the plan.

“All I hear about is the need for pre-school,” said Gregg. “There are so many, so many advantages to it that start immediately, but this is going to help fill that skilled worker gap as these students go through. It cuts down on drug usage, recidivism rates, incarceration. It increases high school graduation, certification, college attendance, health. It just helps in so many ways.”

That’s why, for Smith and Patton, the money is less of an issue.

“We spend so much money on so many other things,” said Smith. “I don’t know what is more important than children and the future of the children and of our world."

Mike Pence's deputy campaign manager Marc Lotter issued the following statement:

“Governor Mike Pence is proud to be the first Governor in Indiana history to successfully shepherd a state pre-K program through the General Assembly. Research shows pre-K provides the greatest benefit for children who don’t receive the early childhood enrichment at home that they deserve. Governor Pence is committed to expanding Indiana’s program in a responsible manner to serve more children in need while also ensuring the state can afford to support pre-k in the years to come.”