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A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.

A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.

Scott Elliott

Speaker Bosma backs preschool, but senate unmoved

House Speaker Brian Bosma endorsed Gov. Mike Pence’s plan to establish Indiana’s first state-funded preschool program Wednesday, but there was just one problem.

The Republican-dominated Senate Education Committee, where a similar proposal was dismantled last year, is showing no signs of budging this time around despite the enthusiasm of other party leaders.

“I don’t know why they are giving this such a high priority on their agenda of things,” said committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn. “I don’t sense there is any renewed interest in doing anything this year of any consequence.”

Gov. Mike Pence has made state-funded preschool for up to 44,000 poor children in Indiana a centerpiece of his legislative agenda, but budget and education leaders in the senate have balked, including appropriations committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, saying they did not want to create a program with new costs to the state during the non-budget “short” session of the legislature. The next two-year budget will be written in 2015.

Preschool is also one of Bosma’s top priorities, which he spelled out today. Bosma noted that 60 percent of Hoosier children who are ages 3 or 4 are not enrolled in a preschool program and Indiana is one of 10 states that does not offer a state-funded preschool program.

“There is no doubt that early education provides the foundation of a child’s education,” he said. “A solid educational foundation provides a child with limitless career opportunities in the future.”

In December, Pence outlined his idea for a program that would operate much like the state’s K-12 voucher program. Families could choose public or private preschool and use state dollars to pay tuition. Preschools would be evaluated for their effectiveness based on assessment tests judging their readiness for kindergarten.

But while 44,000 students could be eligible under the income guidelines, his education adviser said the program would likely start smaller.

The bill filed today, while not stating how many students might be eligible, looked very much like a bill put forward last year that aimed to serve 1,000 low income four-year-olds in a pilot program in five counties. Under House Bill 1004, a qualifying child could receive up to $6,800 for full-day preschool or $3,400 for a half-day program.

The exact number of kids that would be served by the program, and it’s cost, have yet to be determined. But last year’s similar bill was estimated to cost about $7 million annually.

Last year’s bill was completely rewritten into a $2 million matching grant program instead. Kruse said at the time only three of 12 committee members favored the original bill. The cost was a major stumbling block, he said.

“If we did do something it would be in the budget year,” Kruse said. “I don’t think the leaders want to open up the budget now. We don’t have that money.”