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Pence renews push for preschool program

Gov. Mike Pence greets preschoolers on a visit to Shepherd Community Center last year.
Gov. Mike Pence greets preschoolers on a visit to Shepherd Community Center last year.
Scott Elliott

Gov Mike Pence called on lawmakers to reinsert a pilot program to to help low income children begin early learning programs into a bill that now would only study preschool.

Speaking in a preschool classroom at Shepherd Community Center on the East side of Indianapolis, Pence it was vital to get started with the pilot program, which was stripped out of House bill 1004 by Republicans in the Senate Education Committee last week.

“I think we have a legislative framework that will be responsible but will meet what is a very urgent need in places like Shepherd Community,” Pence said as youngsters drew pictures and read books at their desks behind him. “To act and to study is the right step this year for the people of Indiana and for the state of Indiana.”

The bill passed the House overwhelmingly last month with the pilot program included 87-9. But Senators wanted to wait until the 2015 budget making session to decide whether to launch a state-paid preschool aid program that would benefit about 1,000 low income children at a cost of about $10.6 million a year.

Instead, Senators rewrote the bill to establish a summer study committee. Pence embraced that idea today, saying the state should launch the pilot program, study it and examine what other states are doing. He noted Indiana is one of just nine states that contributes no direct state aid to help children attend preschool.

“Indiana would do well to take time to study not only the pilot program that is launched but also other programs around the state and around the country,” he said. “There are many examples around the country we can learn from.”

Seated next to Pence was Jenny Izaguirre, who has a daughter in preschool at Shepherd and another in second grade at the elementary school on the campus run by Horizon Christian School. Her older daughter uses the state’s K-12 private school voucher program to direct state aid to pay her tuition.

She said many other parents would like to enroll their children in the preschool program but don’t have enough money to pay the tuition.

“They think it’s impossible because, ‘We can’t pay. We can’t afford it.’ ” she said. “If we don’t have this, we don’t have an opportunity to pay. Education for our daughter is very important.”

Sonna Dumas, the program director, said tuition is very low — $100 to $210 a year depending on the child’s age — but still that amount is a hardship for many. The school makes use of grants and philanthropy to cover its costs and will work with parents who need extra time to pay.

But Dumas said the program has a long waiting list of children who could begin preschool if there was a state program offering aid to low income families.

“Enabling them the ability to come would be tremendous for this community,” Dumas said.

The Senate had an opportunity on Monday to restore the pilot program when Democrats proposed an amendment to do so. But the Republican-dominated body balked, voting the amendment down by a resounding 36 to 11 vote. The Senate will vote on the bill later this week or next week.

But Pence is already looking to a potential conference committee, to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions, for another chance to restore the pilot program.

“We’ll now go into the negotiation between the two chambers and I remain very hopeful that we’ll be able to arrive at a compromise that will start this program in a responsible way in the form of the pilot program and initiate a comprehensive study,” Pence said.

Most legislators, Pence said he believed, want to start preschool and only hesitate to create the framework of a program that needs funding outside a budget session. The original bill actually would not cost the state any money until after the next budget is set and gives the 2015 legislature discretion to decide to fund the pilot or not.

“Politics, and the legislative process more importantly, is about persuasion,” Pence said. “We’re, on a daily basis, engaging with members of the General Assembly in both parties to make the case the time has come to expanding access to quality pre-K programs to some of our most disadvantaged kids.”

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