House passes pre-K bill that expands access to vouchers

The Indiana House on Tuesday passed a bill that would expand the state’s five-county, state-funded pre-K pilot program, while also creating another pathway into the state’s controversial private school voucher system.

Lawmakers voted 61-34 to send the bill to the Senate. But even some who voted yes said they have reservations about the potential of expanding the voucher system and are hope the bill is changed later in the session.

If the bill becomes law, it would allow pre-K students who receive grants under the pilot program—and meet certain income requirements—to become automatically eligible for the K-12 voucher program when they reach kindergarten.

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

"I’m frustrated because this is a bill I was excited about supporting exciting,” said Rep. Wendy McNamara , R-Evansville. “The voucher language in it frustrates me. This particular bill, the way that it’s written, is making me—forcing me—to make a choice between changing the lives of kids in exponential ways and between something I have consistently voted against since the first days I’ve been in office."

A few Democrats said they were surprised to be voting against a bill that would expand preschool but said they had other reservations about the bill.

Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, has criticized the bill as more of a “feel-good” piece of legislation that is more tentative than it needs to be.

If passed, the preschool expansion will help children in five more counties access preschool—but will still leave 82 of Indiana’s 92 counties without access to scholarships.

“It pretends we need to study yet again whether preschool is good,” Delaney said. "They’ve studied this for decades. We pretend it’s a statewide program when it’s not. I think we’re misleading the public if we vote for this bill. I think we need to have a real bill. I hope it will have a real amount of money in it … and a real plan to get from here to the end goal."

But supporters, including state Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, said they would look past the voucher language to keep the bill moving.

“I didn’t have one person ask to have vouchers be put in this pre-k bill,” Mahan said. “I’ve had thousands ask me to support early childhood education."

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