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Senate panel drops Pence-backed preschool program

A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.
A preschooler in the Reggio program at IPS School 60.
Scott Elliott

One of Gov. Mike Pence’s top legislative priorities, a preschool pilot program, appears to have been stymied for 2014.

The program that would have been created by House Bill 1004 was set aside today by the Senate Education Committee, which preferred to hand the idea off to a legislative summer committee for more study.

The rewritten bill, with the pilot program removed and language creating the study committee inserted, passed the committee 9-0.

“This is an effort to put this suggested program into a form where it can actually be successful and do what it needs to do,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who proposed the amendment to move the issue to a study committee. “I think this is a logical step to take.”

Kara Brooks, a spokesman for Pence, suggested in a statement he was not giving up on the idea of establishing state support for preschool.

“Gov. Pence believes every child deserves to start school ready to learn, and he believes now is the time for a voluntary pre-K program to help Indiana’s low-income kids,” she said. “The governor looks forward to continuing to work with members of the General Assembly to advance this important initiative.”

House Bill 1004 has enjoyed wide support in the House, which last month passed it 87-9. It’s possible the pilot program could resurface as an amendment when the bill is considered on the Senate floor or in conference committee to resolve differences with the version passed by the House. It could also be added to another education bill.

Senators on the education committee have long been hesitant about launching any state-funded preschool program. Last year, the same committee scuttled a similar proposal for a pilot program, reworking that bill into a small grant program. Indiana is one of nine states that spends no state money for direct aid to children to attend preschool.

But this year state aid for preschool got a strong push from Pence. The governor made his first appearance of his 13-month tenure to testify for a bill to try to persuade the committee to allow the full Senate to vote on the bill.

With high quality preschool, children living in poverty have a better chance to succeed in school and life, Pence said in his testimony. Without preschool, they can fall behind in school, putting them at risk for dropping out or worse.

“It’s not that they are not willing and bright,” he told the committee in his testimony. “As a parent and as your governor, I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”

Pence made concessions to try to assuage concerns from Kenley and others about the potential costs of the program. The bill was a scaled down version of his original proposal. It would have provided tuition support to about 1,000 low income children in five counties. The program also was constructed so it would cost no money until after the next biennial budget was created in 2015, a key concern of Senate Republicans.

Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation estimates the program would cost about $10.6 million when fully implemented. Start up costs in 2015 would be about $650,000 with the first children enrolling in 2016.

Kenley listed 10 questions he hoped the study committee would answer. Key among them was whether Indiana could get flexibility from the federal government to use federal money to fund the program without tapping state money. Federal funds currently support Head Start and other preschool programs for low income families in Indiana.

“Federal law allows for waivers to be secured by states,” Kenley said. “President Obama says he’s in favor of preschool education. We are hoping Indiana can go to the White House and Washington. If they would let us use the money that is already there we can have a pretty significant program developed here without using those dollars.”

The proposed summer study committee’s to do list

An amendment to House bill 1004 offered by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and supported by the Senate Education Committee, removed the preschool pilot program backed by Gov. Mike Pence and inserted language to create a summer study committee. The amendment detailed 10 areas Kenley asked for the committee to study:

-The feasibility of Indiana obtaining a block grant and waiver under the federal Head Start program, possibly to redirect money from Head Start for preschool vouchers such as was proposed in House Bill 1004 or an alternative program.

-The feasibility of obtaining a Child Care Development Block Grant or other federal funds to pay for Indiana preschool programs.

-The options for funding preschool or early learning programs through partnerships with business, philanthropic or communities.

-Whether other states have developed rigorous accountability standards for preschool programs.

-Parental involvement opportunities to prepare children for school outside of a formal preschool program, such as promoting the benefits of reading to children.

-Opportunities to equip parents with skills needed to improve their ability to contribute to the education of their children prior to kindergarten.

-The economic benefits of preschool.

-The appropriate state agency or entity to develop and oversee preschool accountability standards.

-The appropriate income standard to use to determine eligibility for tuition assistance from the state for preschool.

-Opportunities to partner with an investment group or entity to establish an investment fund or vehicle to finance preschool in Indiana.

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