By LAUREN FITCH
KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) _ Spots are available in quality preschool programs in Howard County, yet more than 300 low-income children do not attend.
The barrier is cost, and a state-funded preschool voucher program could help address that if Howard County is one of the five counties selected to participate in the pilot set to launch in 2015.
“We’re in the wait-and-see,” said Hilda Burns, president of the Community Foundation of Howard County, which partnered with United Way to compile a county statement of readiness with input from local early childhood education providers. “We have several organizations that deal with early childhood. . All of those things strengthen our case that we have the resources to provide an education that will be beneficial and get those children off to a good start.”
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, which is overseeing the preschool voucher program, invited Howard County and 17 others to submit a statement of readiness expressing their interest in hosting the pilot. The counties were chosen based on geographic diversity, a mix of rural and urban, and the percentage of children living in poverty.
“The idea is to give a better local perspective on what’s going on in your county, those things we can’t just pull off a database,” said Melanie Brizzi, administrator for the FSSA’s Bureau for Child Care, in a webinar explaining the preschool pilot application process.
The deadline to submit the statements was June 30, and the FSSA is expected to announce the five counties that will participate by the end of the month, the Kokomo Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/1qDdrl8 ).
Those 18 counties represent 17,000 eligible 4-year-olds who are not currently receiving early learning services. The FSSA predicts 2,200 to 6,000 children could be served in the pilot year.
In the 2014 session, the General Assembly approved spending $10 million in state funds on the preschool pilot, with another $1 million to $5 million being generated by the counties selected to participate. At this time, there’s no provision for recurring funding for the preschool vouchers.
Families within 127 percent of the federal poverty threshold will be eligible to receive the vouchers, and they can use them at any child care provider rated at a Level Three or Level Four on Paths to Quality, a voluntary rating system recognized in Indiana.
“It would mean children who aren’t presently being served – who might go into kindergarten without the same experiences as others who went to preschool – (would have) more of an equal opportunity to do well in school,” Burns said. “Their education is the foundation they build on. It will help them be ready to learn and be successful in school.”
In Howard County, 42 percent of the child population from birth to 5 years old lives in households with an income that falls within 127 percent of the poverty line. There are 552 local 4-year-olds who would be eligible for the voucher pilot, according to the FSSA, 328 of whom are not being served by an early childhood education program now.
Twenty providers with 74 open seats would be eligible now to accept the vouchers, and Abbie Smith, executive director of United Way, expects that number to increase by about 50 seats as Kokomo Center Schools brings its preschool program to a Level Three on Paths to Quality.
Those involved in submitting Howard County’s statement of readiness feel confident they demonstrated the need for a preschool voucher program here and the availability of quality early learning centers. Whether the state delivers the vouchers, early childhood education advocates feel the process of evaluating local resources for the statement of readiness was valuable in itself.
“There’s a network we have in place for providers to talk,” Smith said. “It’s not a sense of competition, rather a shared mission of providing quality care. . For the community in general, early childhood education is a priority. It’s one of the best investments in our community we can make long-term.”
Vouchers will range from $2,500 to $6,800 per child, depending on what a provider typically charges and whether parents want to enroll their child in a full-day or half-day program. To be considered a Level Three or Level Four in the Paths to Quality system, a provider must include a planned curriculum and focus on school readiness. Meeting those requirements comes with an additional price tag, Smith said, for the curriculum and staff training.
“When you involve a curriculum in pre-kindergarten education, that costs money,” she said. “It’s not just babysitting, it’s early childhood education.”
It would cost a family of three living at the poverty line or a single mother earning income at the median level approximately one-third of their annual income to have a single child in quality child care, according to the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee, which released its first report on June 30.
“We see a gap where they can’t afford the services, but they don’t have the public assistance,” said Michelle Kanable, director of Bona Vista Child Care Solutions. “I think this is a big step for Howard County. Through the application process, we’re going to see a push for early childhood in this county. Whether or not we get the funds, I think we’ll see a move in that direction.”
The FSSA has advised that programs should recruit children not currently being served by other publicly-funded programs, such as Head Start or the federal Child Care Development Fund vouchers. The goal is not to replace existing resources, but to supplement what’s available in order to reach more children.
Other components of the preschool voucher pilot are that providers must offer a parental engagement component – which several Howard County providers already do – and that they must administer a kindergarten readiness assessment, which the Early Learning Advisory Committee is working to develop.
Data will be collected from those who participate in the voucher program, with the goal of completing a longitudinal study to see how those children perform by the time they get to third grade.
Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com