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General Assembly

Pre-K voucher easily passes House; fate in Senate less certain

– The Indiana House on Thursday approved a bill that would allow low-income families to use state-paid vouchers to send their children to preschool.

House Bill 1004 passed 87-9 and 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 now seeking a pilot voucher program instead.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said a few senators 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 don’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.

If passed, the legislation would create a five-county pilot program for public, private and religious preschools. The Family and Social Services Administration would select the counties and administer the program.

Scholarships of up to $6,800 would be available for 4-year-olds 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 next year’s state budget.

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

About 40,000 Indiana children 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 about tying the preschool voucher to the state’s vouchers for K-12 students. If children receive the early-education voucher, they 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 that 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.