Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Governor Testifies In Favor Of Pre-K Pilot, But Fiscal Conservatives Remain Wary

Rep. Rhonda Rhoads shakes Gov. Mike Pence's hand as he takes the podium for a speech in Corydon.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Rep. Rhonda Rhoads shakes Gov. Mike Pence's hand as he takes the podium for a speech in Corydon.

Gov. Mike Pence made a rare appearance at a state legislative committee hearing Wednesday to testify in favor of a preschool pilot program for low-income Hoosier 4-year-olds.

“Reducing childhood poverty is not only a state goal of our administration, but a goal all of us share,” Pence told the Senate Education Committee. “I’ve come to conclude we will not succeed in this fight if we don’t deal with the problem that too many students don’t do well in school because they begin their academic careers unprepared to learn.”

Members of the panel will vote on the pre-K proposal next week and whether Pence’s comments will be enough to sway fiscal conservatives in his own party remains to be seen.

Senate Republicans scaled back a similar bill last year, and budget hawks have expressed skepticism that the timing is right for a state-funded preschool program.

The current proposal calls for a small-scale preschool pilot program for — the bill’s authors say — 1,000 students in five counties, and funding wouldn’t kick in until the 2015 fiscal year. But Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, wanted to know if passing the proposal would commit the legislature to funding it.

“Do we have to give it special treatment in the next budget?” Kenley asked.

The bill’s author, House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, quipped that the Senate Education Committee had sent a teacher innovation grant proposal to his chamber without a way to fund it.

“Kill it, then,” Kenley replied.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, then asked if the state should focus on making kindergarten mandatory before funding preschool. Currently, the compulsory attendance age in Indiana is 7.

But Behning says 98 percent of Indiana students are attending kindergarten, and he wants the decision to remain with parents. He pointed out that pre-K remains voluntary under his proposal — parents must apply for the voucher to attend preschool.

That’s also led to some backlash from the state’s largest teachers union, which has criticized Behning’s pre-K proposal as a backdoor expansion of the state’s voucher program. House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, has urged his party to vote in favor of state-funded preschool even if it’s delivered through vouchers.

This post may be updated. Follow @ellemoxley on Twitter for the latest.


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