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March 14, 2013

Indiana Senate panel weighs preschool pilot program

INDIANAPOLIS — Public and private school advocates displayed rare unity Wednesday in support of preschool for Indiana children but split over an effort to give children school vouchers once they complete preschool.

An effort led by House Republicans to spend $7 million on a pilot program that would pay for 1,000 students to attend preschool has won broad bipartisan support. But lobbyists representing public school teachers, local school boards and school superintendents rang an alarm bell Wednesday about a provision that would allow those children greater access to school vouchers.

"This is a gateway to vouchers, it's something our association does not support," Frank Bush, director of the Indiana School Boards Association, told the Senate Education and Career Development Committee on Wednesday.

The measure touches on one hot-button of the school voucher debate: Should a child spend a year in public school before qualifying for a voucher, as state law now requires? Voucher supporters have tried hard to eliminate that wait-time, and the preschool program would create at least one workaround by allowing preschoolers to qualify immediately for school vouchers.

House Education Chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, defended his proposal Wednesday, saying it is more limited it was being portrayed.

Behning has led an effort in recent months to put more Indiana children through preschool. He says he was surprised by how infrequently children in low-income families are read to before being enrolled in kindergarten.

Though plans to provide more early childhood education have won broad support, more questions have cropped up since the measure passed the House 93-6 last month.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he was concerned that running a pilot program for 1,000 students could create pressure to put every qualified child in preschool, which could cost between $200 million and $500 million a year.

"The other issue, in all honesty, has to be funding. And if this is good for a few kids, a thousand kids, it's probably good for a lot of kids," he said.

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