House GOP considers Indy preschool as model

House Republican leaders toured an Indianapolis preschool Wednesday, one day before the House Education Committee takes up a proposal to give preschool vouchers to low-income families in a small number of cases.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, have proposed paying $7 million a year for a pilot program that would send roughly 1,000 children to preschool.

Bosma and Behning said Wednesday they were considering doubling the size of that pilot program if they can find private donors to chip in another $7 million a year. Finding a charitable match, they estimate, would enable the state to pay for 2,000 students a year out of an eligible pool of roughly 40,000 3- and 4-year-olds.

"Our leadership team this summer was talking about what was next from our perspective on education improvement and were looking at statistics like we're sixth from the bottom in the nation on the number of 3- and 4-year-olds that are in a preschool program," Bosma said.

Like the voucher program lawmakers approved in 2011, Bosma said the preschool program would be targeted at low-income families.

St. Mary's executive director Connie Sherman briefed Bosma, Behning and a group of other House Republicans and business leaders on a school that serves mostly low-income families. Roughly 95 percent of St. Mary's 235 children come from families who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and roughly 88 percent of families have most of the school costs paid for through private donations.

"All children deserve the highest quality early childhood education. No child deserves to be some place where nothing is happening, or bad things are happening," Sherman said.

As she led the group through the Indianapolis school Wednesday afternoon, she pointed out posters recounting field trips to places like Waterman's Family Farm in Indianapolis. Following that series of food-growing trips, she pointed to a list of children's answers which showed they better understood that much of what they eat grows out of the ground.

The school relies on the Reggio Emilia teaching method, she said, and focuses on teaching children through projects and field trips instead of methodical repetition.

Early childhood education became a hot topic during the 2012 election and has been prioritized by leaders in both chambers and Republican Gov. Mike Pence. The St. Mary's model, largely paid for through private donations, is one Republican leaders are leaning toward. Pence has proposed giving a dollar-for-dollar match to anyone who gives money to private "scholarship granting organizations" or SGOs, which then pay for children to attend preschool.

Candi Lange, a board member and former Eli Lilly executive, told the group that education and daycare opportunities are areas skilled workers often ask about as they consider taking a job in Indiana.

Dean Brackenridge, chairman of the St. Mary's board and a lawyer at Frost Brown Todd LLC, noted that the business community has been pushing lawmakers to take on early education, now that they have paid for full-day kindergarten.

The school started out in the basement of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Indianapolis, he said, but business leaders wanted to do more with the school, so they built the school's West Street location.

"Some businesspeople recognized we can do better than this, kids deserve a better place to learn and came together in the mid-'80s to build this facility for the students through private donations," he said.

Republican leaders are looking to tap into that philanthropic vein this session as they look for ways to pay for preschool.

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