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Senate panel puts pre-K bill on hold

Pence-backed proposal sent to summer study panel

– The Senate Education Committee quashed a pilot preschool program Wednesday, sending the issue of pre-kindergarten and early learning to a summer study committee.

From a practical standpoint, the change doesn’t have much effect because the bill would have created the framework of a state program, but there was never any funding attached.

At best, the five-county program would have begun in fall 2015. That could still happen under the study committee, with the legislature passing the program next year when it also crafts a new two-year state budget.

But politically, it was a severe blow to Gov. Mike Pence’s legislative agenda. He was pushing the preschool bill hard, even showing up to testify on its behalf last week.

“Gov. Pence believes every child deserves to start school ready to learn, and he believes now is the time for a voluntary pre-K program to help Indiana’s low-income kids,” spokeswoman Kara Brooks said. “The governor looks forward to continuing to work with members of the General Assembly to advance this important initiative.”

Indiana is one of only 10 states that doesn’t directly fund pre-K education. Supporters said statistics show that kids in poverty are already behind when they begin school.

House Bill 1004 originally would have used 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 had not been identified.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, offered the amendment to further study the issue. Some facets to be considered are whether federal money can be sought; rigorous accountability standards for preschool; parental involvement; what state agency should oversee the program; and the appropriate income standard to be used.

“The whole effort is to try to put this thing in a position where we can have a product worthy of our consideration if it should be funded,” he said. “It’s a step forward. It does advance the cause.”

Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, voted yes on the bill because he didn’t want it to die before final negotiations.

“I’ll be candid in stating I had hoped we would move further with the Senate bill,” he said. “Maybe additional strides can be made in conference committee. I don’t want the bill to meet a negative fate at this point.”

House Republicans have pushed the program for several years and now have Pence behind the proposal as well.

The discussion is far from over. Because the pilot passed the House, it is eligible to be revived later in conference committee when final negotiations occur between the House and the Senate.