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Pence’s challenge: Paying for education proposals

Gov. Mike Pence talks with high school students at Indiana’s old statehouse after speaking about education in Indiana’s first capital of Corydon. (Scott Elliott)

Gov. Mike Pence talks with high school students at Indiana’s old statehouse after speaking about education in Indiana’s first capital of Corydon. (Scott Elliott)

Gov. Mike Pence knows that some of his 2014 education proposals for the Indiana legislature could be costly.

He’s hoping for some creative thinking from lawmakers to make them work, but it’s unclear how much cooperation he will get.

He’s also rooting for an improved economy, just one day after ordering the sale of the state plane and higher education cuts to counter a $141 million drop in tax collections.

“We are going to continue to see this economy grow,” he said Tuesday in an interview with reporters following an afternoon speech. “We’re going to have additional resources as a state to focus on our priorities.”

Speaking at the old statehouse in Corydon, the state’s first capital, Pence expanded on his education agenda, noting that Hoosier lawmakers made Indiana the first state to guarantee a free public education when its 1816 constitution was forged there.

“I think time has come for us to focus on the supply side of education,” Pence said, “promoting new innovation, new learning methods and new technology to improve student outcomes.”

Pence has proposed a handful of new programs aimed at instituting state aid for preschool, supporting charter schools, boosting vocational education and creating opportunities for teachers to try new approaches. But the potential price tag of his education ideas have raised some eyebrows with the legislature poised to open 2014’s “short session,” a scaled back lawmaking effort held between biennial budget-making odd years.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said last week he was reluctant to support bills that require new funding outside of the budget process in 2014, saying bills that commit the legislature to future funding can tie lawmakers’ hands in the future.

But House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he thought the House would be more receptive, especially since state-funded preschool was one of Pence’s priorities.

“The House definitely would view it more favorably,” he said. “We are totally on board with moving on preschool. It was something we wanted last year but didn’t get what we wanted because the Senate wasn’t on board with it.”

An improving economy could help, Behning said, but might be too much to ask.

“We’re all hopeful the economy will start growing,” he said. “It obviously hasn’t been growing like we’d hope.”

The Pence education plan

Pence’s team has not estimated the overall cost for his education plan, but its clear it would require major financing.

Among his proposals:

Preschool. A voucher-style system of state aid would help up to 40,000 high-poverty families pay for preschool. Last year a proposed pilot program for 1,000 low income kids that was ultimately reduced and redesigned had an initial estimated cost of $7 million a year.

Innovation fund. An undetermined number of teachers could compete for grants to support innovative classroom programs and seek reimbursement for up to $100 in classroom supplies.

Teacher choice. Teachers who change jobs to go to work in a D or F rated, high poverty traditional or charter school could earn a stipend to help defray a portion of any loss in salary. Pence has not yet said how much the stipend would be for or how many years teachers could receive one.

Pence acknowledged, however, that his education plan is a starting point, and that implementing any of his agenda would depend heavily on how legislators react to it.

“All these ideas are meant to stir the pot,” he said. “On the financing side, I fully expect us to have a thorough debate with legislators on how we do that.”

A new initiative

But far from scaling back his ambitions Tuesday, Pence described a previously unannounced — and potentially costly — new legislative priority. He called for an expansion of drop out recovery charter schools that aim to entice those who never earned diplomas to return to school.

Growing numbers of adults have earned diplomas at dropout charter schools run by two Indianapolis groups — Goodwill Industries and Christel House Academies. With both planning major expansions, legislative budget makers raised alarms earlier this year that the costs could spiral out of control. But advocates for the school say they are performing a service the state desperately needs.

“We believe strongly that there are many adults across the state who would take advantage of a rigorous academic program that results in a diploma and a post-secondary credential and look forward to engaging in discussions with legislative leaders about the best way for that to happen,” said Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill’s education initiatives.

Despite what supporters argue is a compelling track record of success — 350 dropouts earned diplomas through the Goodwill Excel centers alone since 2010 with 75 percent now working full time — Kenley and others cautioned that charter schools were not intended for adults and raised concerns that the without a cap on them, the $25 million estimated annual cost for the schools could quickly escalate. So they limited the schools to those already open or planned as of 2013 earlier this year.

But the schools say demand is rising because so many Hoosiers left school without completing diplomas, Excel, which expanded this year to Lafayette, Kokomo and Richmond, had 2,000 potential students on its waiting list last summer.

“These schools are demonstrating the kinds of results that are giving people the second chance they need and deserve,” Pence said. “I’m anxious to find ways we can step forward and support them.”

Christel House Academies operates the Christel House Drop Out Recovery School, or DORS, on Indianapolis’ south side and has plans to open three more DORS schools. Carey Dahncke, Christel House’s executive director, argued the schools are an economic development tool for Indiana as well as a needed educational option.

“Unlike workforce development programs, DORS engages adults in academic coursework leading to a high school diploma and college credit at Ivy Tech,” he said. “Expanding the educated adult workforce is critical to long term economic growth in the state.”

Funding method questioned

Because many of the students are adults, some lawmakers have asked whether drop out recovery charter school funding should be separated from the K-12 tuition aid for public schools. But Behning disagrees. School districts spent less than they should have on students who dropped out of school early, he said, so it’s fair to redirect state aid for them even if they now are adults.

Behning also argued the costs should not be as great as some fear. Even fairly fast growth of drop out schools should be distributed among enough districts that none would be unevenly impacted by big new costs, he said.

“That would come out of the school funding formula,” Behning said. “My guess is you aren’t talking about significant growth and huge hits to schools through the funding formula.”

Pence shared Behning’s logic for funding adult education in drop out recovery schools using K-12 state aid dollars.

“My own personal view of it going onward in terms of the cost,” Pence said, “is when that student dropped out of school, that school didn’t incur the cost of that student.”