Preschool bill is one baby step for Hoosier-kind

It’s a start. A tiny one, for sure. But to use a cliché that for once is totally appropriate, you’ve got to walk before you can run. And in Indiana, we’re barely crawling when it comes to early childhood education.

House Bill 1004, which establishes a state-funded pilot program to help low-income parents send their children to preschool, was approved Thursday by the state House and Senate. The measure limits the program to five counties in its first year. It can be expanded later if lawmakers agree.

Best of all, the legislature dropped a provision that would have made participating preschoolers eligible for vouchers to attend private K-12 schools as they get older. As initially approved by the House, the bill had the potential to eventually make nearly half of Indiana students eligible for private-school vouchers.

Votes for the final version of the bill were 92-8 in the House and 40-8 in the Senate, with all the no votes by Republicans. It now goes to Gov. Mike Pence, who can sign it and claim the legislature approved one of his signature initiatives. Provisions include:

  • Indiana can spend up to $10 million from unused state funds or federal grants for the one-year pilot program.
  • Families that make no more than 127 of the federal poverty level are eligible. That’s a change from the initial plan, which covered families to 185 percent of poverty.
  • Preschool tuition subsidies can be from $2,500 to 6,800 per child.
  • The Family and Social Services Administration will select the counties and design and run the program.
  • Private or federal grants must pay between 10 percent and 50 percent of costs.
  • Public and private preschools can participate. They must be rated a Level 3 or 4 on the state’s Pathways to Quality child-care evaluation program.

The House passed the original version of HB 1004 overwhelmingly, but it stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Luke Kenley, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, raised concerns about cost and effectiveness. The Senate dropped the pilot program and substituted a summer study of preschool.

A key to the overwhelming approval Thursday of the compromise version was dropping the voucher eligibility provision. That made it easy for Democrats to vote for the bill. It also should have eased concerns for Kenley and some other Republicans about committing the state to pay K-12 tuition for parents had no intention of sending their kids anywhere but to private schools.

If there’s anything not to like, it’s that the bill is so incredibly modest. Forty states have adopted state-funded preschool, so it’s not like we’re moving into uncharted territory. It’s true, we Hoosiers are a cautious lot. We don’t like to be first, but we’re usually not last.

And the skeptics who keep saying the evidence for preschool is based on a small study in Michigan just haven’t been paying attention. There has been plenty of follow-up research confirming the educational and economic value of preschool, including studies in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Indiana lawmakers apparently aren’t persuaded by studies that aren’t done by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers, so HB 1004 prescribes a $1 million study of whether participating in the preschool pilot program improves students’ test scores when they reach third grade. This could produce useful information, but not for five years. Let’s hope lawmakers don’t intend to wait that long to expand the program.

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