INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -
A widely supported effort to expand Indiana’s state-funded preschool program
has been complicated by provisions in a House bill that would also expand
access to the school voucher system.
Robert Behning’s measure, which the House endorsed, would double to 10
counties the reach of the pre-K program launched last year for children from
low-income families. Many support the expansion of the pilot program,
including GOP Statehouse leaders and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. But tying
it to voucher expansion, which is politically touchy, has drawn criticism
from House Democrats, pre-K advocates and even some Republicans.
"Pre-K is a big
issue. Vouchers (are) a big issue. This is an issue that should’ve been
stand-alone,” Republican Rep. Kevin Mahan said Tuesday before a House vote
on the measure. “Folks, this is what drives our constituents nuts back
program, which is one of the nation’s largest, allows parents to use public
funds to send their children to non-public schools, including religious
ones. According to the Indiana Department of Education, nearly 33,000
students used vouchers last school year, which was far more than the roughly
3,900 students who used them in 2011-12, the program’s first year.
bill, students who receive a pre-K scholarship from the state and meet
certain income requirements would be eligible for school vouchers beginning
in kindergarten. Proponents say this new pathway into the voucher system
could let children transition smoothly from preschool into kindergarten at
the same school.
“It’s all about
continuity and trying to provide parents the options,” Behning told The
Associated Press. “It’s not like I’m trying to secretly expand vouchers - I
don’t see it as a big expansion. It just makes it more seamless.”
The change would
only affect students involved in the pilot pre-K program, so combining both
topics in one bill makes sense, he said.
The state’s largest
teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, and an advocacy
group, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, say vouchers drain
resources from public schools and shouldn’t be included in a pre-K expansion
strongly in favor of expanding access to high-quality early education, they
oppose the House proposal and suggest the combination of ideas in the bill
may have been a way of expanding vouchers by capitalizing on the popularity
of preschool access.
“You take something
that everybody wants and try to attach things that aren’t as popular, in the
hopes of saying it’s about expanding pre-K, so everybody votes for it and
wants to support it - without realizing the other implications it might
have,” said Keith Gambill, vice president of the teachers association.
Legislative Services Agency estimates that the voucher aspect of the House
measure could cost the state up to $10.5 million, depending on the amount of
tuition support provided. Students receiving vouchers represented 2.9
percent of total statewide school enrollment, the state Department of
Education reported in April.
ultimately cleared the House in a 61-34 vote. Many Democrats voted against
the bill and called for a more expansive proposal.
A separate Senate
bill that has not yet received a floor vote would also allow up to 10
counties but does not include voucher language. GOP Senate leader David Long
said while he was unsure what a final Senate version would look like, he did
see the difference between the two ideas.
Holcomb declined to
comment on whether he supports the voucher language and said he was focused
on his submission to double the pilot program.
Wendy McNamara, who voted in favor of the House measure, said she reserved
the right to vote against it should it return to the House with the voucher
bill, the way it’s written, it’s making me - forcing me - to make a choice
between changing the lives of kids in exponential ways and between something
that I have consistently (voted) against since the first day I’ve been in
office,” she said. “It’s created a lot of frustration on my part.”