State lawmakers add voucher access to preschool expansion bill

A bill that would grow Indiana’s prekindergarten pilot program—while also creating another pathway for students to access the state’s K-12 private school voucher program—advanced in a House legislative panel Tuesday.

The bill, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, would expand the pilot program from five counties to 10 counties. Lawmakers are still hashing out how much to spend on the program. The bill passed the House Education Committee 9-4.

But the bill also says that students who receive grants under the pilot program and meet certain income restrictions will be automatically eligible for the K-12 voucher program when they reach kindergarten and are entitled to receive at least 50 percent of the state tuition support amount that accompanies that qualification.

That means eligible students could access vouchers sooner than they otherwise would.

“It really is focused at making sure parents have a seamless opportunity to put their students in the school that they think best meets the needs of their student, without having to disrupt the child’s education plan,” Behning said. “If you were in that school, why are we forcing parents to make a change that they wouldn’t necessarily make if they had the choice?"

But the voucher language has injected some controversy into a bill that has received bipartisan support.  

Washington Township Schools parent Scott Russell said the bill “ties together the wildly popular [preschool expansion idea] with the controversial and not-fully-disclosed-to-the-public expansion of school vouchers.”

Behning’s bill also loosens the income level restrictions for the preschool program, which will make more children eligible for preschool scholarships overall. That means changing eligibility for the On My Way pre-kindergarten pilot from 127 percent of the federal poverty level—$30,861 for a family of four—to 150 percent of the qualification for free- and reduced-price lunch, or $67,433 for a family of four.

About 61,688 Indiana 4-year-olds meet the new income guidelines.

In 2016, 1,893 children participated in the preschool pilot program, with another 408 students being the beneficiaries of early-education matching grants.

The state Legislative Services Agency estimates that the new voucher pathway could end up costing between $5.9 million and $10.5 million annually, but noted that "the impact on state expenditures from expanding choice scholarship pathways will depend on the size of the award and whether the student would attend public school in the absence of a scholarship.”

Behning disputed those figures, saying that a small number of schools that accept vouchers also participate in the preschool program. The LSA also noted that some of the children would have already qualified for a choice scholarship under an existing pathway.

The Indiana State Teachers Association tweeted that the union "supports expansion of pre-K, but not as a mode to further expand an already costly voucher program which hasn't proved to help kids.”

AFT Indiana said the bill represents “doubling down on vouchers in Indiana.”

“We think it’s important that children have high-quality preschool,” said Sally Sloan, AFT’s lobbyist. “There is no evidence that voucher schools have better outcomes with children than public schools.”

Some private school advocates, however, are in support.

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said he respects “philosophical differences with choice.” But, he said, allowing preschool voucher recipients to be allowed into the voucher program in kindergarten is about practicality for parents.

“This particular part of the bill just makes sense,” Elcesser said. “Why would we help a child to attend one of these schools for preschool and then tell them they have to leave for a year?"

Indiana Catholic Conference Executive Director Glenn Tebbe told the Catholic newspaper “The Message” on Jan. 26 that the group “supports parents’ ability to select a school that best suits their needs.”

Several preschool advocates who testified from the corporate community focused on the benefits that preschool would provide low-income 4-year-olds, without mentioning the voucher portion.

United Way of Central Indiana President Ann Murtlow said students who have access to high-quality preschool programs are better able to follow instructions, work together with other children, are more confident, and have lower rates of special education and higher high school graduation rates.

“A child is only 4 once,”  Murtlow said. “After that, the opportunity is lost.”

Indy Chamber Board President Brian Sullivan said it “is an unfortunate reality that not every child is in an environment that prepares him or her for school.” He said investing in preschool could help avoid the state avoid “costly social burdens that we will pay for one way or another."

United Way, as well as others in the corporate community, are asking for a $50 million annual investment in preschool, saying the state “simply can’t afford to do less.”

Behning's bill does not specify how much would be invested into the expansion; instead, that will be determined through the biennial budget process.

Legislative leaders have previously cast doubt on United Way’s $50 million per year request.

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