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Governor, Indiana House GOP seek vouchers, pre-K aid

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Gov. Mike Pence and top Republican legislators plan to barrel ahead this year with the "freight train" of education changes sought by Indiana's former governor, including proposals to expand school vouchers and use private money to send children to preschool.

Republican leaders are seeking a major expansion of the state's already extensive school voucher program, and the new governor is proposing the state promote preschool through a private scholarship program.

The education measures all build on the sweeping overhaul Republicans approved in 2011, with strenuous objection from minority Democrats, who left the state for five weeks over the issue and others.

House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, is the lead author of a proposal to end a one-year waiting period before students receive a voucher, increase the amount paid per student up to $6,500 and qualify siblings of voucher recipients for state aid themselves.

"I look at education as something that's too important for us to just sit around and see what happens," Behning said Tuesday of the renewed push.

Republicans, led by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Republican School Superintendent Tony Bennett, established the broadest school voucher program in 2011 as part of a package that expanded charter schools and established merit-pay for teachers while curbing their bargaining power. The overhaul also contributed to Bennett's stunning loss to Democratic School Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who won the support of angry Indiana teachers.

The measure also includes some Pence priorities. One section would extend vouchers to military and foster families along with special needs children. Another would establish a dollar-for-dollar match for anyone who donates to groups that offer scholarships to cover the cost of preschool for the state's 3- and 4-year-olds.

"The governor believes this is a good way to get business involved in creating the synergies to put together early childhood" education, Behning said of the pre-school scholarship program.

Pence said Thursday he would not comment on any legislative proposals before his State of the State speech, in which he's expected to lay out his first-year agenda in more detail. However, the voucher expansion and support for a private-sector answer to early childhood education were included in the policy "roadmap" he delivered during the campaign.

The Behning package comes a day after Speaker Brian Bosma outlined a pilot program House Republicans are seeking that would spend $7 million a year to send 1,000 children to private preschools around the state.

The proposals are drawing some skepticism from top Democrats and at least one Republican budget hawk, who argued last week they were not included in the 2011 package because they open the system to abuse.

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, and a leading opponent of the 2011 measures, said he's worried Republicans are leaving public schools behind, just a few years after cutting $300 million out of their annual budget.

Some Republicans, including Bosma, have said that those education cuts will be restored in some amount. Others, such as Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, have said the levels set during the recession are the new norm.

"So we had an etch-a-sketch moment where we said we're going to start here and move forward? We're going to have a do-over?" Porter said.

Kenley, the lead budget-writer in the Senate, has also had tough words for advocates of expanding the voucher system, because of the high price tag that could come with it. Measures filed this year have not yet been scored by the state's Legislative Services Agency. But a similar proposal last year to do away with the year a student must spend in public school before qualifying for a voucher, estimated more than 26,000 students already enrolled in private school could qualify at a cost of $115 million to the state.

Sen. Luke Kenley said the voucher law was passed with the agreement that students would spend the year in public school and challenged a Senate proposal last week to allow siblings of current voucher students to skip that requirement.

"I think this is a pretty fundamental change, and I'm just wondering whether it's one that really meets the intent of the original law," Kenley said.

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