Pre-K debate continues in Senate committee

By Shelby Mullis
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K pilot program could soon be expanded to more counties, making early education opportunities available to more low-income students in the state.

While lawmakers are still at odds over how much money the state’s pre-K program should receive over the next two years, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is asking legislators to consider giving pre-K access to more low-income children throughout Indiana.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, introduces his pre-K bill to the Senate Education and Career Development Committee on Wednesday. Several people testified at the hearing in both support of and against House Bill 1004. Photo by Shelby Mullis, TheStatehouseFile.com

“If we fail to reach Indiana’s low-income, at-risk children, society is often playing a costly game of catch up that some will actually never have the opportunity to catch up,” Behning said. “Indiana is behind most states. Only 36 percent of Hoosier 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K, according to the United Way of Central Indiana.”

Behning introduced his bill before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee Wednesday, along with more than 20 other witnesses.

House Bill 1004 would provide eligible pre-K providers with an early education matching grant to expand its services to more children.

These providers would be required to submit an expansion plan to the state’s division of family resources.  The plan would include how the provider will increase capacity to serve more eligible children, increase the number of providers or increase both the capacity and the number of providers.

The program currently exists in five Indiana counties — Allen, Lake, Jackson, Marion and Vanderburgh. Behning’s bill would increase the number of participating counties to 10.

HB 1004 would also increase eligibility requirements for both the pilot program and the Early Education Matching Grant, ultimately widening the range of student eligible for the program, Behning said.  

“The ramifications of this cannot be understated. Building a foundation for educational and social emotional success is a key part of developing children into well-rounded adults,” said Jen Walthall, Indiana Family and Social Services secretary.  

She said early childhood educational experiences are essential for a child’s physical health and capacity for learning and social interaction.

Some people had issues with parts of the bills.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said he supports the expansion of pre-K in the state of Indiana, but said Gov. Eric Holcomb and other lawmakers are working at a “snail’s pace” with HB 1004.

Smith said he has studied the benefits of pre-K since 1978, and his major concern with the early education legislation is that many low-income people may be lost in the shuffle if the entry level for vouchers is increased.

“We need to expand this program at a greater degree than what it’s doing, but some progress is some progress,” Smith said.

One portion of the bill would allow students from lower-income families who receive a state pre-K scholarship to continue attending a school of the parents’ choice, such as a private school, with a voucher.

Caitlin Bell, vice president of policy and government affairs for the Institute of Quality Education, said the institute remains neutral on pre-K, but supports the voucher portion of the bill.

“Part of our program has been involved in the voucher program and making sure students have access to quality schools K-12, regardless of their income,” Bell said. “The voucher language in here ties into a lot of what we work with.”

Several people, including retired educator Vick Smith, said they do not support the voucher language in the pre-K bill.

“Indiana needs to expand pre-school but not with an expensive link to guarantee K-12 private school vouchers,” Smith said. “Any pre-K student, including public pre-K students, get a voucher for life. This would be the biggest expansion of voucher eligibility since 2013.”

In response, Behning said those enrolled must continue to meet the income threshold in order to keep the voucher.

Some child advocacy groups like the United Way of Central Indiana are also asking lawmakers to consider increasing funding to $50 million — a $40 million increase from the state’s current $10 million funding.

Through their state budget proposal, House Republicans and Gov. Eric Holcomb are requesting an increase of $10 million to expand the program. Meanwhile, senators are asking for an increase of just $3 million to expand the program.

Behning said HB 1004 does not deal with funding for the program, but rather leaves that portion up to the budget.

The Senate Education and Career Development Committee will amend and vote on HB 1004 next week.

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

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