January 17, 2014

Preschool voucher to assist low-income families clears House panel

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A bill to give low-income families with young children access to an early education voucher passed the House Education Committee on Jan. 9. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the legislation.

The measure, House Bill 1004, establishes the early education scholarship pilot program. The program would provide supplemental funding for eligible children receiving eligible services from certain early education providers.

If the bill becomes law, an eligible child would receive a scholarship through the program beginning after June 30, 2015. Under the plan, a child or a sibling of a child who receives an early education scholarship and meets certain other applicable criteria would be eligible for the Choice Scholarship program from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, said, “The program outlined in House Bill 1004 will provide needed assistance to families who may experience more obstacles, and whose children are often without sufficient opportunities that benefit their social and cognitive development.

“Public policy should maximize the quality of educational opportunities for all children by ensuring that all parents have access to, and the financial capability to exercise the right to choose the school they believe is best for their children.”

The bill, authored by three Indianapolis lawmakers, House Education Chairman Rep. Bob Behning and House Speaker Brian Bosma, both Republicans, and Democrat lawmaker Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, would initiate a preschool pilot program in five counties across Indiana. The plan would target low-income children who would receive a voucher to attend a state approved, high quality preschool program.

“We have done a lot in moving education and education reform forward. The greatest need where we have not done a lot is the area of early childhood education,” Behning said. “There is no question Indiana is behind the rest of the nation in providing early childhood education, especially to children of poverty.”

Under the bill, eligible students would come from families at 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is $43,567 for a family of four according to the federal Health and Human Services Administration. Students selected for the pilot program would receive $6,800 to attend a high quality preschool program for a child attending a full-day program, or $3,400 for a child who attends a half-day program.

The bill would authorize the program. However, funding would need to be allocated during the 2015 budget session.

Several leaders from the business community around Indiana spoke in favor of the legislation during the Jan. 9 education hearing.

Connie Bond Stuart, regional vice president of PNC Bank in Indianapolis, testified in support of the bill, noting that PNC Bank has committed $350 million over multiple years to assist in early childhood initiatives.

Stuart said that research shows that, for every dollar invested in early childhood education, the state saves $16 in later remediation. “Every child deserves a chance to be prepared to learn and ultimately be successful with a productive life,” Stuart said.

Angela Smith Jones, director of public policy for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, said early childhood education has been their organization’s top priority for the past 10 years. She added that early childhood education boosts the overall academic success for children throughout their school years, and “provides a home-grown pipeline of workforce-ready individuals for our business community.”

Derek Redelman, vice president of education and workforce policy for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, echoed Smith’s remarks, saying early childhood education was a “high priority” and “critical approach” to the business community.

While public school advocates have a history of being strong supporters of preschool education, several raised concerns about some of the specifics of the bill.

Vic Smith, who represents the Indiana Coalition of Public Education, spoke in opposition to the legislation. “We need to end the erosion of public school funding.”

Since House Bill 1004 would give students in the pilot program an automatic entry point into the state’s voucher program for kindergarten through 12th grade, he claims it would lead to increased funds being diverted from public to private schools. “As the K-12 voucher program grows, public school students get fewer resources,” said Smith.

John O’Neal of the Indiana State Teachers Association raised similar concerns that the pilot program would serve as a “feeder system” into the K-12 voucher program.

VanDenburgh asked Behning if he would consider removing the portion of the bill which gives children access to the K-12 Choice Scholarship. Behning reminded VanDenburgh about the impending Senate battle to get the bill passed, and said that many members of the Senate who are not very pro-early education voted for the bill last year primarily because it had the Choice Scholarship entry point. For now, Behning said he was keeping that part of the bill intact.

House Bill 1004 now moves to second reading on the House floor where it may be amended before it reaches third reading and a final House vote.

(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 Web page and click “Legislative Action Center.”)

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