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Pence looks to expand education overhaul

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence announced an expansive education plan Tuesday for his second year in office that will include seeking approval for vouchers for preschool-aged children, extending more state help for charter schools and paying for teachers to work in low-income school districts.

Pence released more specifics about his education agenda, which forms the core of his second-year legislative package, but declined again to say how he will pay for the measures. Communications Director Christy Denault said the governor will seek authority for the new items this year and negotiate payment for them during the 2015 budget-writing session.

Preschool vouchers would be offered to any family earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and could be used to pay for either public or private programs. Pence would also offer vouchers of up to $12,000 to pay for teachers to move to low-income schools, public or private. He's also asking lawmakers to help charter schools by giving them more flexibility in budgeting and offering more aid to buy or renovate former public school buildings.

"Our moral obligation as policymakers is similar: to ensure that children in Indiana are learning in a way that prepares them to succeed in the future," Pence said in prepared remarks delivered at the site of Indiana's first capitol, in Corydon.

The Republican governor's education proposals largely build on the overhaul pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett in 2011. But Pence is also adding in doses of technical training and career preparation building from the work of a series of workforce development committees established earlier this year.

Education has become a sticking point for Pence through his first year in office. His ongoing battles with Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz have engulfed State Board of Education meetings. His surprise creation of a new education agency this past summer spurred accusations from Ritz that he is trying to undercut her authority.

Pence is likely to find a sympathetic ear to most education proposals from both the House and Senate, where Republicans hold supermajorities. Democratic lawmakers did not immediately criticize the governor's ideas Tuesday and said they would like to find some common ground with him, potentially on early childhood education.

"I think there are certainly some areas we can work together on," said state Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, who serves on the House Education Committee.

Battles, who teaches chemistry at Lincoln High School in Vincennes, questioned whether the education changes Pence is building are working as well as the governor says.

The education proposals come in addition to the governor's call to eliminate the business personal property tax, increase road-funding and make a series of other changes he says will help the state economy. However, ambitious legislation of any type could find a tough row through the General Assembly during an already-abbreviated 2014 session expected to be dominated by the marriage amendment fight.

Many of Pence's education measures mirror items from a preliminary policy memo Ritz released last week. The memo, drafted by Pence education staffers, pondered ways to strip Ritz of her power over the State Board of Education, but Pence said he dismissed the idea when it was brought to him.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has repeatedly said he will block any legislation stripping Ritz of power. But he has also said lawmakers might be forced to find a way to mediate between the two if the fighting continues.

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