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General Assembly

Pence pushes preschools to Senate panel

Backs 5-county pilot program in rare testimony to committee

– Gov. Mike Pence personally trumpeted a pilot preschool program before a key Senate panel Wednesday, the first time he has testified before a legislative committee since taking office.

“Every child deserves to start school ready to learn,” he said, adding he had reservations about pre-K programs before traveling the state and seeing quality programs. “I think we’ve got a chance to make progress and do it right.”

He did not take questions from the Senate Education Committee, which heard House Bill 1004 on Wednesday. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill last month.

Governors rarely testify in legislative committees. Pence’s appearance was strategic as Senate Republicans resisted a similar pilot program last year and generally have expressed reluctance.

Even Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, sponsor of the legislation, said he is a latecomer to the concept of preschool education.

“I knew there were studies that showed the gains were not long-standing. I thought of it as state-paid day care,” he said before he bones up on the topic. “All I ask of you is to have an open mind. “

The proposed legislation sets up the structure of a five-county pilot with the money coming next year when a new state budget is crafted. The first time the program could help students is the fall of 2015.

This pass-first-fund-later approach vexed Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who crafts the Senate version of the biennial budget.

“If we pass this now is this a priority before we even start and don’t even know our revenue picture?” he asked. “I’m wondering if this is not premature.”

Kenley also asked why the state doesn’t seek a waiver from the federal Head Start program to create its own plan rather than first spending state money.

Indiana is one of only 10 states that doesn’t directly fund pre-kindergarten education. Supporters said statistics show kids in poverty show up to school already behind.

The proposed program would use the current private school voucher system to help low-income 4-year-olds in five counties attend a preschool program. Up to 1,000 kids a year might be affected. The counties have not been identified.

Several people testified against the voucher involvement, saying more Hoosier children would be allowed to go to private school using state funds without ever attending public school.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the program would piggyback on the federal Child Care Development Fund, which is used now to provide low-income day care.

Only providers certified as Level 3 or 4 Paths to Quality – with a planned school-readiness curriculum and possible national accreditation – would be eligible to receive the state paid maximum $6,800 voucher.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, questioned how the program would be different than Head Start or the current Child Care Development Fund program and wondered how to distinguish between child care and preschool.

Behning said the state program would also use an accountability measure to track student progress.

“In terms of benefits that would accrue for these students, I think it’s long overdue,” said Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary.

Several others said the program should be overseen by the Indiana Department of Education rather than the Family and Social Services Administration because it is an educational program, not day care.

A committee vote could come next week. If it passes, it will go to Senate Appropriations to analyze its possible fiscal impact.

nkelly@jg.net

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