INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Mike Pence and top Republican legislators plan to
barrel ahead this year with the “freight train” of education changes sought
by Indiana’s former governor, including proposals to expand school vouchers
and use private money to send children to pre-school.
Republican leaders are seeking a major expansion of the state’s already
extensive school voucher program, and the new governor is proposing the
state promote pre-school through a private scholarship program.
The education measures all build on the sweeping overhaul Republicans
approved in 2011, with strenuous objection from minority Democrats, who left
the state for five weeks over the issue and others.
House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, is the lead author
of a proposal to end a one-year waiting period before students receive a
voucher, increase the amount paid per student up to $6,500 and qualify
siblings of voucher recipients for state aid themselves.
“I look at education as something that’s too important for us to just sit
around and see what happens,” Behning said Tuesday of the renewed push.
Republicans, led by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Republican School
Superintendent Tony Bennett, established the broadest school voucher program
in 2011 as part of a package that expanded charter schools and established
merit-pay for teachers while curbing their bargaining power. The overhaul
also contributed to Bennett’s stunning loss to Democratic School
Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who won the support of angry Indiana teachers.
The measure also includes some Pence priorities. One section would extend
vouchers to military and foster families along with special needs children.
Another would establish a dollar-for-dollar match for anyone who donates to
groups that offer scholarships to cover the cost of pre-school for the
state’s 3- and 4-year-olds.
"The governor believes this is a good way to get business involved in
creating the synergies to put together early childhood” education, Behning
said of the pre-school scholarship program.
Pence said Thursday he would not comment on any legislative proposals before
his State of the State speech, in which he’s expected to lay out his
first-year agenda in more detail. However, the voucher expansion and support
for a private-sector answer to early childhood education were included in
the policy “roadmap” he delivered during the campaign.
The Behning package comes a day after Speaker Brian Bosma outlined a pilot
program House Republicans are seeking that would spend $7 million a year to
send 1,000 children to private pre-schools around the state.
The proposals are drawing some skepticism from top Democrats and at least
one Republican budget hawk, who argued last week they were not included in
the 2011 package because they open the system to abuse.
Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, and a leading opponent of the 2011
measures, said he’s worried Republicans are leaving public schools behind,
just a few years after cutting $300 million out of their annual budget.
Some Republicans, including Bosma, have said that those education cuts will
be restored in some amount. Others, such as Senate Appropriations Chairman
Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, have said the levels set during the recession
are the new norm.
“So we had an etch-a-sketch moment where we said we’re going to start here
and move forward? We’re going to have a do-over?” Porter said.
Kenley, the lead budget-writer in the Senate, has also had tough words for
advocates of expanding the voucher system, because of the high price tag
that could come with it. Measures filed this year have not yet been scored
by the state’s Legislative Services Agency. But a similar proposal last year
to do away with the year a student must spend in public school before
qualifying for a voucher, estimated more than 26,000 students already
enrolled in private school could qualify at a cost of $115 million to the
Sen. Luke Kenley said the voucher law was passed with the agreement that
students would spend the year in public school and challenged a Senate
proposal last week to allow siblings of current voucher students to skip
“I think this is a pretty fundamental change, and I’m just wondering whether
it’s one that really meets the intent of the original law,” Kenley said.