INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's school voucher program, already the broadest in the nation, would be expanded to preschool-aged children under a plan Gov. Mike Pence announced Thursday as part of his 2014 agenda.
Pence delivered more specifics about a second-year agenda focused on education and economic items. It is more ambitious than what he offered shortly after taking office earlier this year but still shows a measure of caution.
The governor will ask lawmakers to eliminate the personal property tax, find $400 million for road construction, expand access to charter schools, alter how teachers are paid and improve business regulations as part of an attempt to draw more companies to Indiana. But the proposal to expand the state's voucher program could require the most work.
"I just wanted Hoosiers to know I've been spending time travelling the state of Indiana. I've visited a broad range of early learning programs and I just think the time has come for Indiana to provide an opportunity for disadvantaged children to have access to pre-kindergarten programs," Pence said.
The preschool vouchers would be offered to families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, but Pence said further details will be released later. The plan sounds similar to what House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, offered last year and has said he will introduce again this session.
Democrats and Republicans alike have supported expanded access to preschool across the state, but Democrats have called for the creation of public preschools instead of vouchers. Democrats are vastly outnumbered in both the House and Senate, but Republican budget leaders have questioned the price tag on expanding school vouchers before.
Pence is also proposing a series of measures which would benefit the state's charter school operators. One measure would make it easier for charters to obtain vacant public school buildings, another would shorten the timeline for "F'' public schools to be taken over by charter operators and a third item would subsidize teachers who move to charter schools serving low-income students.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the governor's 2014 agenda largely ignores the strain on the state's middle class and pushes measures which would benefit only a small swath of the population.
"Once again, the improvements in our state's educational system are weighted toward vouchers and charter schools available only to a select few. Our traditional public classrooms are forgotten," Pelath said in a statement.
A handful of Pence's proposals are similar to items his education staffers discussed in an internal memo released by Democratic Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz released Wednesday. The "2013 Education Policy Document" developed by staffers for Pence's Center for Education and Career Innovation discusses ways to expand access to charter schools, subsidize teachers who leave public schools to teach at charter schools and possibly shift how federal dollars are used for preschool programs.
Ritz pointed to an item in the memo that discusses ways to strip her control over the State Board of Education as evidence of an attempted power grab. But Pence said Thursday he would not pursue any legislation to curb her powers. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, also said Thursday he would block any legislation stripping her powers.
Pence had mixed success during his first dance with the General Assembly earlier this year. Republican leaders, including Bosma, balked at his proposed income tax cut before delivering him a portion of the cut he sought along with tax cuts they preferred.