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File photo
Brian Bosma
General Assembly

Preschool pilot for poor kids approved

5-county, $10 million trial to be paid on welfare tab

– State lawmakers approved a modest prekindergarten pilot Thursday for poor Hoosier children – a key victory for Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

Earlier in the General Assembly’s session, it seemed the Senate Republicans would block the program, choosing a study of the issue instead.

But a final compromise authorized a five-county pilot using up to $10 million from the current Family and Social Services Administration budget.

“This gives us a chance to prove that strong early education opportunities for these lowest of income families can make a difference for them,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said Thursday, the last day of the legislative session. “It’s been proven elsewhere, and we need to prove it here in Indiana to make the case for the future.”

House Bill 1004 passed the House 92-8 and the Senate 40-8. Democrats – longtime advocates of preschool – supported the bill with votes but wished the pilot were broader and prefer it be run by the Indiana Department of Education.

“It took us months to come up with a very small program. And until today it has hung by a thread,” said Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis. “Nobody should be beating their chest over this very modest program.”

Under the bill, the Family and Social Services Administration would create and run the program using up to $10 million in reversions from that agency’s existing budget. Private donations also would be required.

Children in homes up to 127 percent of the federal poverty level – or an income of about $30,000 for a family of four – would be eligible for prekindergarten grants of $2,500 to $6,800 per student.

Public schools and private providers would be eligible so long as they meet certain accreditation requirements.

The number of children to be served depends on the funding raised, but it is expected to be at least 1,000 and could be as high as 4,000.

There also will be attendance and parental engagement requirements, as well as a study on the effectiveness of the program.

“Early childhood education can make the difference in children’s lives,” said Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Indiana is one of only a handful of states not to invest state dollars in a preschool program. Pence originally pushed a much more ambitious program but still gets a win after the Senate initially signaled it wanted to only study the idea.

Bosma said one of the key reasons for the breakthrough was the Senate Republican idea to use existing budget money, not new spending.

“These children need a chance,” said Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, who said the program isn’t much but is something.

But eight GOP senators, including Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, voted no. Rep. David Ober, R-Albion, opposed the bill in the House.

Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, said the program could be a “budget-buster” if legislators later expand it. And he said there is nothing in the bill that requires lawmakers to wait and review data to see whether the program is effective before expanding.

“This is something that could have a catastrophic fiscal impact on the state.”

Pence education adviser Claire Fiddian-Green said the law would take July 1 and the most likely timeline for the pilot to be up and running would be fall 2015.

Bosma, though, hopes the pilot starts later this year.

One key compromise was removing any connection to the state’s K-12 voucher program. Earlier in the session, House Republicans wanted to link the two programs, creating a new pipeline for children to attend private schools on state-paid vouchers.