Pre-K and vouchers: not a good combination

Excuse the language, but Indiana House Republicans served up a classic shit sandwich with House Bill 1004, their legislation to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program. Stuffed inside the bill is language that would provide yet another route for students to become eligible for the state’s school voucher program.

Under the legislation, students who participate in the pre-K program for low-income families would become eligible for a voucher to help pay private school tuition. They would stay eligible as long as their family income continued to meet the program’s requirements.

The House Education Committee approved the bill last week on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the education panel.

Seen as pure politics, HB 1004 of a slick move. Democrats have pushed for years to expand state support for pre-K. But as backers of public schools, they oppose vouchers. They’re in the awkward position of having to vote against one of their long-time priorities.

And it’s not just Democrats who are targeted. A coalition of business and civic groups led by United Way of Central Indiana is urging the legislature to increase spending on pre-K to $50 million a year, five times what it currently spends. Will that group support more vouchers if it’s the price of expanding pre-K?

Indiana created a pre-K pilot program in 2014, but its serves only five counties at a cost of $10 million a year. And Republicans who control state government have balked at expanding it, citing cost concerns. The National Institute for Early Education Research counts Indiana as one just eight states without an actual pre-K program.

In keeping with what Gov. Eric Holcomb supports, HB 1004 would double spending on the pre-K pilot to $20 million and expand it to another five counties. If it were to pass, Indiana would be making pre-K available to children from poor families in just over 10 percent of the state. That’s not nearly enough.

A companion bill in the Senate, SB 276, does the same, but at least it doesn’t include vouchers. It’s on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

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