Lawmakers searching for agreement on pre-K expansion

By Ashley Shuler
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Lawmakers are still trying to find common ground on how to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program.

The pre-K bill, House Bill 1004, is now a stripped-down version of the original House legislation. The legislation deals the state’s publicly funded On My Way Pre-K pilot program, which sends 4-year-olds from low-income families to pre-K the year before they begin kindergarten.

Claudia Miner waits for questions about the UPSTART program, which the state is considering giving $1 million to start in Indiana. The online pre-K program was developed in Utah 2009. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

The state’s pilot program currently exists in five Indiana counties: Allen, Lake, Jackson, Marion and Vanderburgh. The amended bill would allow eligible pre-K providers in any Indiana county to apply for the early education grant pilot program.

In the original, there was more money allotted to expand the program and a provision for school vouchers. Vouchers were an issue Wednesday’s conference committee seemed to agree should stay out of the bill.

But that’s about all lawmakers could agree on in the meeting designed to reconcile the differences between the original House version and the Senate’s changes.

Much of Wednesday’s committee discussion focused on a component of the bill that gives $1 million in funding to UPSTART, an online pre-K classroom where students learn for 15 minutes five days a week. The program would cost the state upwards of $2,000 per child enrolled from home, as they will also have to provide a computer and internet access for the low-income families the program is targeting.

Claudia Miner, the program’s executive director, said UPSTART is not designed to replace classroom learning but to serve children and families who don’t have access to traditional pre-K.

But Sally Sloane of American Federation of Teachers Indiana said the state should remove that funding altogether. She said she’s concerned about the effectiveness of virtual classrooms and thinks the allocation should go towards getting children to in-person pre-K classrooms.

“A lot of pre-K learning is focusing on socialization and interaction with other children and adults,” Sloane said. “This would not be the best way to spend this money.”

While the bill would still give eligible pre-K providers a grant to expand their service to more children in low-income families, it would only allocate $3 million more to the $10 million the state currently spends on the On My Way Pre-K pilot program.

Sally Sloane of American Federation of Teachers Indiana testifies in front of committee Wednesday. Sloane said she thinks the money going towards the online UPSTART program would be better spent getting children inside a pre-K classroom. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

Gov. Eric Holcomb and House Republicans asked for an increase of $10 million to expand the program—a $7 million difference from the Senate’s version also being discussed.

“Most importantly for me is that we double the number of students who have access to pre-K,” Holcomb said in a March news conference. “How we get there, I’m willing to be open-minded about.”

House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said pre-K money discussions will be fleshed out in upcoming conference committee meetings for House Bill 1001, the state’s biennial budget.

Committee members also raised concerns about the bill’s language that gives priority for foster care children to enroll in the state’s pre-K program and what income level families should have to be below to be eligible for enrollment.

“There are lot of details, in the weeds sort of discussions, that need to continue,” said Rep. Holli Sullivan, R-Evansville. “And when we talk about expanding a pilot, I want to be very careful that we expand upon the reasons of which we started the pilot.”

After more discussion amongst committee members, a revised version of the pre-K bill will head to both chambers for an up-or-down vote before reaching the governor’s desk.

Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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