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Indiana House OKs pre-K bill; Senate hurdle next

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana House on Thursday strongly approved a bill using state-paid vouchers to send low-income kids to preschool.

House Bill 1004, which passed 87-9, now moves to the Senate, where its future is less certain.

Last year the Indiana House passed a broad pre-K bill before the Senate gutted it. In the end a small matching grant program was established but House Republicans are seeking a pilot voucher program instead.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said a few Senate members have eased their opposition but the bill isn’t “leading the pack at the moment.”

“It’s helpful that the governor is on board a great deal and that it’s become a priority for so many other people in the community, so I’m hopeful,” he said.

Indiana is one of about 10 states that doesn’t fund preschool education.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis – author of the legislation – said children in poverty start kindergarten a year and a half behind.

“We are trying to do what’s right for the children,” he said.

The legislation creates a five-county pilot program for preschools that are public, private or religious. The counties would be chosen later by the Family and Social Services Administration, which would administer the program.

Scholarships of up to $6,800 would be available for 4-year-old children in families that make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $43,000 for a family of four.

Even if the Senate passes the program, it wouldn’t start until July 2015 because there is no funding attached to the bill. That would come when legislators craft a new state budget next year.

A fiscal analysis of the proposal shows the program could cost between $7.5 million to $30 million in the first year.

There are 40,000 Indiana children who would be eligible for the program but how many would be served depends on the money set aside for the program.

One concern Democrats have is tying the preschool voucher to the state’s vouchers for K-12 students. If the child receives the early education voucher the child would be able to use the K-12 voucher without first attending public school for one year.

“Investing in early childhood education is important,” said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “We don’t want what is wrong to get in the way of what is right.”

Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, said despite her reservations “my heart just knows it’s the right thing to do. We’re behind 40-some states.”

Area House members supported the bill except for Rep. Dave Ober, R-Albion.