March 24, 2017

Pre-K bill to expand pilot program advances in Senate

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A proposal to expand state-funded pre-kindergarten for at-risk children and maintain parental choice passed the Senate education panel by an 8-1 vote on March 15, and now moves to the Senate appropriations panel for funding approval. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the legislation.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, author of the expansion plan, House Bill 1004, presented it before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, saying targeted, high-quality preschool has a high rate of return on investment. Behning said research points to high tangible and intangible outcomes, including higher education attainment; higher likelihood of maintaining employment; higher earning potential; and reduced crime rate.

Behning added the return on investment in pre-kindergarten education yields a three to four dollar return for every one dollar spent on pre-K.

The Indianapolis lawmaker calls pre-K a “wise investment,” especially over the long run, as one looks at the cost to the state of remediation down the road.

Additionally, Behning said the investment in pre-K could help to reduce or prevent those in the at-risk group from needing welfare, addiction treatment or incarceration.

The preschool expansion bill builds upon the state’s On My Way Pre-K pilot program. It allows income-eligible 4-year olds access to high-quality preschool education in five counties—Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh. Currently, the pilot program serves approximately 2,300 low-income children. If passed, the proposal would expand the pilot program from five counties to any county in Indiana.

House Bill 1004 was amended by the Senate panel by a vote of 9-0. The Senate adopted their version of the pre-K expansion plan contained in Senate Bill 276. The amended version would dedicate $16 million for the pre-K program rather than the $20 million proposed in the original version of House Bill 1004. The Senate panel also removed voucher access language for pre-K children to enter kindergarten at the school of the parent’s choice, a provision the ICC supports. The amendment added a new feature to the plan, which would give priority to children in foster care to access quality preschool.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, who serves as the public policy spokesperson for the bishops in Indiana, said House Bill 1004 would improve upon the current preschool program in that it increases access to high-quality preschool education for more children.

Tebbe explained the original version of House Bill 1004 contained voucher language which would have allowed income-eligible preschool children access to a kindergarten through 12th-grade voucher once the child reached kindergarten. They could also use the voucher for nonpublic schools, including religiously affiliated ones.

“Typically, a kindergarten student cannot receive a choice scholarship, commonly referred to as a voucher, for a nonpublic school, but must enter a public school first,” said Tebbe. “Under the original version of House Bill 1004, children who qualify for a pre-K voucher because their family has a financial need would have been eligible for the choice scholarship for kindergarten.

“While I’m disappointed the voucher piece of the pre-K program was removed in the Senate, I’m not surprised,” continued Tebbe. “There are at least three aspects of the bill that are very positive as it relates to parental rights, nonpublic or religiously affiliated preschools, and the common good. First, the measure would maintain parental choice in allowing a parent to choose the preschool that best suits the child, including religiously affiliated, nonpublic or public pre-school.

“Second, the plan also would allow for a variety of ways a preschool program would be able to qualify as a state-approved, high-quality preschool program. Third, it reaches a targeted, at-risk population of low-income children who would gain access to preschool. For these reasons, the pre-K expansion plan is a positive step forward.”

The ICC executive director said that many preschool programs in Indiana that are religiously affiliated or nonpublic institutions meet quality standards that exceed the state’s requirements to qualify as a high-quality preschool program. These programs would be eligible to serve as providers for children to access as part of the pre-K expansion plan.

According to United Way of Central Indiana, Indiana is behind most states in pre-K enrollment with only 36 percent of Hoosier children ages 3-4 in such a program. The national average of the same age group in a pre-K program is 46 percent. Only seven states have a higher rate than Indiana of children not attending preschool.

Tebbe said the bill is likely to move to a conference committee in April. He added he expects giving income‑eligible, pre-K students access to the K-12 choice scholarship or voucher to be a part of the negotiation during conference committee.

The ICC provides legislative updates and other public policy resources at www.indianacc.org.
 

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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