A widely supported effort to expand Indiana's state-funded preschool program has been complicated by provisions in a House bill that would also expand access to the school voucher system.
Republican Rep. Robert Behning's measure, which the House endorsed, would double to 10 counties the reach of the pre-K program launched last year for children from low-income families. Many support the expansion of the pilot program, including GOP Statehouse leaders and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. But tying it to voucher expansion, which is politically touchy, has drawn criticism from House Democrats, pre-K advocates and even some Republicans.
"Pre-K is a big issue. Vouchers (are) a big issue. This is an issue that should've been stand-alone," Republican Rep. Kevin Mahan said Tuesday before a House vote on the measure. "Folks, this is what drives our constituents nuts back home."
Indiana's voucher program, which is one of the nation's largest, allows parents to use public funds to send their children to non-public schools, including religious ones. According to the Indiana Department of Education, nearly 33,000 students used vouchers last school year, which was far more than the roughly 3,900 students who used them in 2011-12, the program's first year.
Under Behning's bill, students who receive a pre-K scholarship from the state and meet certain income requirements would be eligible for school vouchers beginning in kindergarten. Proponents say this new pathway into the voucher system could let children transition smoothly from preschool into kindergarten at the same school.
"It's all about continuity and trying to provide parents the options," Behning told The Associated Press. "It's not like I'm trying to secretly expand vouchers. I don't see it as a big expansion. It just makes it more seamless."
The change would only affect students involved in the pilot pre-K program, so combining both topics in one bill makes sense, he said.
The state's largest teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, and an advocacy group, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, say vouchers drain resources from public schools and shouldn't be included in a pre-K expansion plan.
Despite being strongly in favor of expanding access to high-quality early education, they oppose the House proposal and suggest the combination of ideas in the bill may have been a way of expanding vouchers by capitalizing on the popularity of preschool access.
"You take something that everybody wants and try to attach things that aren't as popular, in the hopes of saying it's about expanding pre-K, so everybody votes for it and wants to support it—without realizing the other implications it might have," said Keith Gambill, vice president of the teachers association.
The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency estimates that the voucher aspect of the House measure could cost the state up to $10.5 million, depending on the amount of tuition support provided. Students receiving vouchers represented 2.9 percent of total statewide school enrollment, the state Department of Education reported in April.
Behning's proposal ultimately cleared the House in a 61-34 vote. Many Democrats voted against the bill and called for a more expansive proposal.
A separate Senate bill that has not yet received a floor vote would also allow up to 10 counties but does not include voucher language. GOP Senate leader David Long said while he was unsure what a final Senate version would look like, he did see the difference between the two ideas.
Holcomb declined to comment on whether he supports the voucher language and said he was focused on his submission to double the pilot program.
Republican Rep. Wendy McNamara, who voted in favor of the House measure, said she reserved the right to vote against it should it return to the House with the voucher language intact.
"This particular bill, the way it's written, it's making me—forcing me—to make a choice between changing the lives of kids in exponential ways and between something that I have consistently (voted) against since the first day I've been in office," she said. "It's created a lot of frustration on my part."