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A leaked email last week became an $80 million bombshell. Gov. Mike Pence had decided not to apply for federal pre-kindergarten funds at that level.

The decision, which the governor characterized as based on federal “intrusion” into education matters reopens a classic case of taking an ideological stance on spending, even if it hurts the state.

Pence explained, “It is important not to allow the lure of federal grant dollars to define our state’s mission and programs. More federal dollars do not necessarily equal success, especially when those dollars come with requirements and conditions that will not help — and may even hinder — running a successful program of our own making. An important part of our pre-K pilot is the requirement that we study the program so we understand what works and what doesn’t. I do not believe it is wise policy to expand our pre-K pilot before we have a chance to study and learn from the program.”

The governor added, “While accepting federal grant dollars can at times be justified to advance our state’s objectives, when it comes to early childhood education, I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program without federal intrusion. Generous, thoughtful and careful development of new policies for our most disadvantaged kids is the Indiana way.”

What Pence hasn’t done is describe the “intrusions.”

But the idea of rejecting $80 million, on the heels of losing more than $1 billion in 100 percent federal Medicaid expansion funding, is now a reality. Those funds are created by taxpayers. When Indiana rejects the funds, they go to other states.

Pence’s decision raised eyebrows, and not just with educators or Democrats. “I was a little surprised,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican, told me last week. “Before I’m critical of it, I want to know the details of the federal strings, that’s what the governor cited. I understand that concern. I’m not certain I would have made the same decision. Eighty million is quite a boost to a pilot program.”

Senate President David Long reacted, saying, “I personally support early childhood education and believe it will eventually play a critical role in providing Hoosier kids with the tools and opportunities they need for success in life. The plan approved by the General Assembly this year sought to create a partnership between state government, the private sector and not-for-profit organizations.”

Long, R-Fort Wayne, continued, “I wasn’t consulted on the governor’s decision and am not personally aware of all of the reasons why he chose not to seek these federal pre-K funds. However, there are certainly many examples where taking federal money has come with onerous and overbearing rules and mandates for the states.” He cited the No Child Left Behind Act which requires annual waivers to evade “burdensome mandates.”

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“I believe the governor is wary of that and wants to ensure this pilot remains an Indiana plan without federal strings attached,” Long said.

Educators such as Brian Wiebe of the Horizon Education Alliance, told the Elkhart Truth, “Elkhart County had actually been asked by the governor’s administration to help create the proposal, along with 12 other counties, so everyone seemed caught off guard by (Pence’s) announcement. My biggest regret is that Indiana will continue to be among just a small handful of states that have not found a way to offer pre-K education to low-income children.”

As a congressman, Pence took a stand against federal spending, refusing to push for earmarks for his 6th Congressional District, though during his tenure it was the leading Indiana district in federal farm subsidies. He opposed No Child Left Behind.

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He assumed a different role as governor, where success requires pragmatism over ideology. An example of this came in 2009 when Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels was a critic of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.

I remember asking Daniels if he would accept the stimulus money and the answer was an emphatic “yes.” Between 2009-13, Indiana received $4.496 billion out of the $816 billion program. It paved roads, repaired bridges and kept teachers in classrooms. “Our goal is to be out of the gate as fast as any state to obligate the funds and get projects started,” Daniels said in January 2009. “It is one-time money, and it must be used for one-time purposes. In two years when it’s not there anymore, we would have to make massive cuts in order to make ends meet.”

So this may be the reasoning behind Pence’s rejection. He made a similar argument against taking the Obamacare Medicaid expansion money.

Bosma added, “It wasn’t a part of our agenda this year because I pledged to certain leaders in the Senate that if they would remove their objection, we would do an honest pilot before I came back advocating for further expansions. I don’t know if that played into the governor’s thinking process.”

Pence is taking a lot of heat for this decision. At some point in the near future, a further explanation will be required, particularly about the “intrusions.” And once the pre-K pilot program is finished, he’ll need to tweak it and expand it to all 92 counties with a viable plan for funding.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @hwypol. The opinions are the writer's.

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