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Pence continues pitch for preschool voucher plan

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence spent Wednesday morning highlighting the work of an Indianapolis preschool as he made a final pitch for an early education voucher plan that has foundered in the Legislature.

In a classroom of 4-year-olds at the Shepherd Community Center, Pence stressed the need for a pilot program that would use state money to help children attend preschool.

The program passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support but ran into trouble in the Senate amid concern from Republicans worried that it could lock the state into expansive new spending at a time when tax collections are declining. Senate Republicans instead proposed studying the issue for a year before making any decisions.

Pence urged lawmakers to reconsider but acknowledged the benefits of further assessment.

"While I believe the time is now for a pilot program, like that which has passed the House of Representatives, I also am just as enthusiastic about a comprehensive study that has been advocated in legislation moving through the state Senate," he said.

The preschool voucher plan, which could cost up to $25 million, is one of several key Pence agenda items that have struggled to gain traction this session. A proposal to pay teachers to transfer to struggling public and private schools was also trimmed back to a study, and his call for a business equipment tax cut has been scaled back. Roads funding he is seeking also looks in danger of being curbed.

Pence's difficulties stem in part from asking for new spending during one of the General Assembly's "short sessions," when no budget is being crafted. Pence has requested that lawmakers approve measures like the preschool plan this year and then find a way to pay for it next year when they write the next budget.

Jenny Izaguirre, who has a daughter attending the preschool, praised Pence's voucher proposal, saying state aid is critical to opening doors for low-income families like hers.

"It is really important because now she can read, she can learn. We don't have the opportunity the other families do who want to have their kids in preschool," Izaguirre said.

Shepherd Community Center is already funded through private grants and donations, as well as money from scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs, which were effectively providing school vouchers long before the state got in the game.

But Sonna Dumas, director of the center's preschool program, said the private money is not as stable as state money would be. She noted that state aid would allow her preschool to expand.

The school serves largely low-income families, Dumas said — the same people who would receive money from the state if a preschool voucher was approved.

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