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Indiana senators worry about cost of expanding preschool

December 14, 2016

Advocates have been hopeful that broad support for a plan to expand free preschool programs for low-income Indiana students would sail through the legislature next year, but several lawmakers are now raising concerns about cost.

Although Indiana’s House leadership has already come out strongly in support of expanding the state’s preschool program, key players in the Senate said Wednesday that they remain skeptical about added costs.

The state’s current $10 million preschool program serves 1,585 children in five counties, but demand for the program far exceeds availability.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he wants to make a more dramatic expansion, doubling or tripling the program. And he’s not alone—incoming Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Board of Education and incoming state schools superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, have all called for more children to have access to preschool.

A number Indiana educators and policymakers have said the research on the benefits of preschool are solid, but the debate in the capitol could come down to funding.

State Sen. Luke Kenley, and Republican and chairman of the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee, said 37 of the state’s largest districts already offer preschool, with no extra money from the state. He said setting aside more money for teacher pay might be just as effective a way to improve education in the state.

“I don’t think we know if (preschool is) the silver bullet that’s going to solve all our education problems versus funding more teachers,” Kenley said. “If 37 (school districts) can implement this with no funding being provided by the state at this point, I’m not sure why it is that we think there’s something else we’re supposed to do.”

Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Portage, agreed that it was premature to make a decision about funding preschool without knowing what the new governor and state superintendent will prioritize and what federal funding might be available. Instead, she called on Indiana to make kindergarten mandatory.

“We still don’t even mandate that children go to kindergarten in this state,” Tallian said. “The age where a child must attend school is not 4, it’s not 5—it’s 7. So I think we need to take care of that.”

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