March 21, 2014

General Assembly passes state’s first-ever preschool choice program

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

After months of debate and a persuasive push by Gov. Mike Pence, the Indiana General Assembly recently passed a preschool pilot program to provide low-income families school choice for their preschool-age children. It is the state’s first-ever tax-funded preschool program.

“Developing an ongoing statewide program to boost early childhood education, particularly for children of poverty, has been a priority of the Indiana Catholic Conference [ICC] for years,” said Glenn Tebbe, executive director for the ICC, who serves as the official spokesman for the Catholic Church in Indiana on public policy matters. “The bipartisan effort by lawmakers and the priority placed on early childhood education opportunities by Gov. Mike Pence this year helped get a meaningful program passed.”

The legislation, House Bill 1004, authored by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, passed in the House by a 92-8 vote, and it passed in the Senate 40-8.

Behning called the plan a “good first step that will provide high quality preschool for 4-year-olds who need it.” He estimates the program will assist anywhere from 2,000 to 4,500 low-income children.

The bill authorizes the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) to create a pilot program to deliver quality preschool to children in five selected counties. Parents qualify whose income is less than 127 percent of the federal poverty level, which translates to an annual income of about $30,000 for a family of four.

Qualifying families may use the funding at qualified preschools, including private preschools, non-public schools or public schools. The bill creates a commission to study the benefits of preschool, and analyze the effects of the program.

“While the pilot focuses on those families with need and provides parents with options in preschool programs, which is a good thing, the automatic access to qualify for the K -12 choice scholarships program was deleted from the final bill in conference committee,” said Tebbe.

“This potentially could force a child to go to a public school for kindergarten, and then return to the non-public school with a voucher. It would be better for the child to stay in the setting and not disrupt the curricular development,” Tebbe continued. “But some leaders in the Senate were adamant that the voucher link be removed.”

The program will be funded by reversions from FSSA funds allocated for this year of up to $10 million. However, the state has to raise up to $5 million from private sources because at least 10 percent of support for each child must be paid for through private sources.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said, “The Head Start Program is a proclaimed failure by the federal government itself, and so I think this is a big opportunity for Indiana to push on them to say give us a chance to do this and direct it correctly. I hope we will make every effort, particularly with the Head Start dollars, to try to develop a program that will really be beneficial to those children.”

In response, Behning said, “I do believe the state will save money as we meet the needs of these children up front as opposed to having to do remediation and spend money later.”

Sen. Earline Rodgers, D-Gary, whose background is in early childhood education, said, “When I was a first grade teacher, I could always tell which kids went to kindergarten because they came ready to school.” Rodgers added the program would “level the playing field” for children who come from poverty.

Rep. Shelli Vandenburgh, D-Crown Point, said, “Today is a happy, happy day for me. I can definitely say this has been a bipartisan effort. We have a governor that really cares about kids.” Vandenburgh added, “I appreciate the parental involvement and the attendance factor.” She noted that the program also opens up different avenues for funding and “much-needed federal funding.”

The Indiana General Assembly adjourned on March 14. Until the next session begins, the legislative council serves as the governing body for lawmakers and directs interim study panels made up of lawmakers who conduct in-depth research on legislative issues in preparation for the next session of the General Assembly.

Aside from Organization Day which occurs in November, the General Assembly resumes its next official lawmaking session beginning in January 2015.

“The Indiana Catholic Conference will continue to represent the Church in the public square during the state’s legislative interim,” Tebbe said, “and assist the Church in informing the Catholic community on both state and federal public policy matters of importance.”
 

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org. To explore the ICC’s electronic public policy tool and join the ICC legislative network, go to the ICC website and click on “Legislative Action Center.”)

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