A powerful Indiana Senate panel on Thursday slashed a proposed funding increase to help expand a state program that sends low-income children to preschool, jeopardizing a major pillar of Gov. Eric Holcomb's agenda.
The move imperils efforts by Republican and Democratic education advocates to help Indiana catch up with more than 40 other states that offer significant preschool programs, according to 2015 figures from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
It's just the latest setback for the new governor this week. Senate Republicans joined Democrats on Monday to shoot down a proposal that would make Indiana's superintendent of public instruction a position appointed by the governor. That change, which is also sought by House Republicans, was another key part of Holcomb's agenda for the session.
"The governor looks forward to working closely with lawmakers in the Senate to advance a responsible expansion of the state's pre-K program that benefits more children from low-income families," Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said in a written statement. "It's a key component of the governor's legislative agenda and one that will contribute directly to the state's efforts to build a 21st century skilled and ready workforce by ensuring Hoosier students have a strong beginning to their education."
Wilson also noted that the governor's full funding increase was included in House Republicans' budget proposal.
Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature still have about two months to negotiate funding details for the preschool program. Still, GOP budget writer Sen. Luke Kenley, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, is known for his resolve and has a long track record of turning down funding requests for programs and pet projects sought by lawmakers over the years.
Increasing state funding for preschool programs was a major issue in the governor's race last year. Democrat John Gregg called for a universal program, while Holcomb said he supported expanded access for children in low-income families.
The state spends $10 million a year on a preschool pilot program, called On My Way Pre-K, which is offered in five counties. But advocates say demand far outstrips available funding and sought $50 million for preschool programs in the next state budget.
The Thursday vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee reduced a $10 million a year increase that Holcomb sought to $3 million. The Senate measure also would also set aside $1 million for a new pilot program that would pay for families to use special software allowing them to teach preschool to their children at home.
Democrats on the committee supported the proposal, though they say much more money is needed and that they voted for the bill to keep the issue alive.
The current pilot program was created at the behest of former Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, over the objection of many skeptics. But Pence shocked advocates when he opted not to seek $80 million in federal preschool funding for the effort. Pence said the federal funding would have come with mandates that weren't necessarily in the best interest of the program.
The adoption of a statewide program has proven politically difficult. Tea party groups, religious conservatives, a network of home schoolers and others say that research hasn't proven that the benefits of pre-K programs are worth the expenditures.
Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, had been hoping his bill would double to 10 counties the reach of the pre-K program, which was launched last year as a pilot program.
However, provisions in the bill that would expand access to the school voucher system have added controversy to the measure.