Indiana House members pushed a preschool bill forward last week, but look for their Senate colleagues to take a more skeptical approach to legislation that is more about expanding school vouchers than educating preschoolers.
House Bill 1004 is Indiana’s too-little, too-late and too-flawed effort to bolster early learning. Republican House leaders haven’t even bothered to hide their real intentions, boldly labeling it as a voucher program rather than wrapping it up in the opportunity scholarship package they used with K-12 vouchers two years ago.
Their mission since then, however, has been to make vouchers available to every family in Indiana. They expanded eligibility guidelines last year and can do it again with the pilot preschool program. It would make the child or sibling of the child who qualifies for the preschool voucher eligible for school vouchers without ever attending a public school.
It’s a clever technique – parents of preschoolers are likely at their lowest career levels. They easily qualify under income guidelines, ensuring taxpayer assistance in paying private or parochial school tuition for many more years.
The state’s biggest voucher proponent, House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, is the author. When it was discussed in his committee, Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Indianapolis, asked the Indianapolis Republican whether he would agree to remove the language linking preschool vouchers to K-12 students. He would not.
But the best indication the bill is about vouchers instead of education is that it designates as administrator not the Department of Education, but the Family and Social Services Administration. An agency charged primarily with handing out assistance to the poor and other vulnerable populations is hardly equipped to oversee quality education programs – particularly a massive agency with a history of bungled bureaucracy and mismanagement. FSSA’s experience in overseeing child care is not adequate preparation for overseeing a quality preschool program.
Make no mistake: Indiana should provide high-level early learning programs for children from low-income families. Their economic circumstances deprive them of rich learning opportunities that middle- and upper-income families take for granted. They frequently start school without the vocabulary and social skills needed to succeed and quickly fall behind.
But HB 1004 is not an early learning bill – it’s a voucher bill, which would further cripple public schools and funnel taxpayer dollars to private interests.
The advantage of being one of the last states in the nation to offer state-funded preschool is that Indiana has dozens of effective models to follow. Until the legislation looks like one of those models, the Senate would be right to leave this costly Trojan horse outside the gate.