Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Voucher-Style Preschool Pilot Gets House Education Committee OK

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

A student looks through a book about fruit and flowers at Busy Bees Academy, a public preschool in Columbus.

Indiana is one of 11 states that doesn’t provide public money for preschool, but that would change if lawmakers approve a plan to enroll 1,000 students in a preschool pilot that would look a lot like the existing voucher program.

A family of four making less than $44,000 could receive up to $6,800 to send their students to eligible preschool providers.

“This bill will give Hoosier children of poverty the opportunity to start their education off early and on the right foot,” House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a release. “An early start to a child’s education has the potential to positively affect their entire education career.”

The proposal has the support of Gov. Mike Pence, who’d like to see private businesses and community organizations also kick in funding to send more students to preschool.

That’s what a coalition of school, community and business leaders in Columbus has been doing for the past several years. The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation runs Busy Bees Academy, a public pre-kindergarten program, and the local Community Education Coalition coordinates scholarships for students to attend local private preschools.

As we’ve reported before, the coalition is already working with other communities in southern Indiana to launch similar education initiatives:

But not every Indiana city has a major economic driver like Cummins to help spur public-private partnerships.

“We are blessed with a leading Fortune 250 company, so the big question is can communities of 500 or 600 or smaller communities in rural America have that same kind of opportunity?” says John Burnett, president of the Community Education Coalition. “And the answer is yes.”

Burnett concedes that having Cummins in Columbus’ backyard has been “enormously helpful.” But he’s also convinced a similar model would work for other Indiana cities. That’s why his group wants to help other communities build their own partnerships to tackle education, healthcare and economic growth.

It’s also worth noting that without public money — a referendum failed in November — Busy Bees will have to scale back next year.

At Thursday’s hearing, Lucinda Nord with the Indiana Association of United Ways urged committee members not to count on private donations to expand the pilot.

“There is not enough philanthropic money in the state to support this,” she says.

Other early education advocates asked lawmakers to consider fully funding kindergarten in addition to the preschool pilot. Though the legislature approved a full-day kindergarten grant last session, schools still get less money per 5-year-old than they do for older students.

Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

Students sing songs with their teacher at Busy Bees Academy, a public preschool in Columbus.

There was also broad support among those who testified Thursday for making kindergarten mandatory. (Currently, school isn’t required in Indiana for children younger than 7.)

If the bill passes as written, preschoolers in the pilot program would be able to attend private school using state voucher dollars without ever attending a public school.

John Elcesser with the Indiana Non-Public Education Association told lawmakers 70 percent of member schools have an attached preschool and would support automatic voucher eligibility.

But Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, the only one to vote against the proposed pilot, told other committee members he couldn’t support preschoolers entering the voucher program without first attending public school.

Sue Errington, D-Muncie, also expressed her discomfort with the provision but voted to pass the bill out of committee. She says she may vote differently on HB 1004 if the bill isn’t amended before it reaches the House floor.

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