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Senate leader says pre-K pilot program still possible

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Lawmakers could still approve a small pilot program to test state-funded pre-kindergarten, the leader of the Indiana Senate said Thursday.

The pilot program would come in addition to a comprehensive study of preschool programs that was part of the bill as it left the Senate.

“There’s an argument that we need to have something out there to see what is or isn’t working,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

Lawmakers are trying to negotiate a compromise on a pre-kindergarten bill before the session ends March 14.

Gov. Mike Pence put state-funded pre-kindergarten for all low-income students on his agenda for the 2014 session. The House then passed a pilot program that would provide pre-K to kids in five counties who are 4 years old and have a family income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

But last month the Senate stripped the pilot program out of the bill and replaced it with a study of the issue. Since then, Pence has been visiting preschool programs across the state to promote his proposal.

On Monday, he visited the Day Nursery in the Indiana Government Center North Building, where he called on lawmakers to “seize this moment in the life of our state and start the process of expanding access to quality pre-K programs.”

Pence has been meeting with House and Senate leaders to talk about kindergarten and other legislative issues about twice a week. The governor said he’s open to other preschool proposals and is flexible about the eligibility requirements.

Long said the negotiations have led to an “alternate proposal,” one that would go beyond just a study.

Still, he said he couldn’t talk about details because a deal hasn’t been finalized. He will also have to take the proposal to the Senate Republican caucus before he can sign off on an agreement with the GOP-controlled House.

Long said the proposal is still in the “formative stages.”

“There’s meaning in it,” he said. “But it can’t be too large because it would be too expensive that way – and this is not a budget year. Whatever we do has to be fiscally responsible right now.”

Legislators won’t write the next two-year budget until 2015 – and that’s looking to be more difficult than expected. State tax receipts have fallen behind projections so far this fiscal year. And the numbers for February – to be released in the coming days – are expected to be dismal.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Fort Wayne, has argued repeatedly that funding for a pre-kindergarten program should be considered in a budget year when it can be measured against other state priorities.

But Long said Thursday that a small, affordable pilot program might be a good idea – and he said students could be participating as soon as this fall.

“The keys are how are we going to pay for it and we’re working through that right now,” Long said. “We want it to be affordable and effective.”

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