GOP divisions emerge as Senate passes pre-K funding plan

Republicans who control the Statehouse are deeply divided on how—or if—Indiana should move forward on a proposed expansion of a state-funded preschool program for low-income children.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted Tuesday to sharply curtail a request by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to increase funding for the state's five-county pilot program by $10 million and instead offered a $3 million boost. At the same time, they moved forward on their own $1 million plan to offer a new—and cheaper—online preschool program designed by a Utah-based company that boasts on its website that it "only takes 15 minutes a day."

That creates a large chasm between the House and the Senate on the issue as this year's legislative session reaches its midpoint.

"I'm doing my best to limit any criticism to anyone I have to work with here for the rest of the session," said Republican Speaker Brian Bosma, who supports Holcomb's proposal and thinks the state should set aside even more money. "This is not the first time we've had this discussion."

Indiana lags most other states when it comes to preparing disadvantaged children for school, a bipartisan coalition of education advocates say. More than 40 other states offer significant preschool programs, but Indiana is not one, according to 2015 figures from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Instead, a five-county pilot program was created at the behest of former Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, though advocates say demand far outstrips available funding.

"The fact that we are one of only eight states that doesn't have statewide program should tell you something," said Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville.

There are deep divisions among Republicans about whether preschool programs are effective. Republican Sen. Luke Kenley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there are already millions of dollars made available for programs that cover children who are underserved.

The bill approved Tuesday is sponsored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, and initially contained the full funding increase Holcomb sought. But changes made to it last week in Kenley's committee cut it down in size.

The measure would spend a grand total of $16 million on pre-kindergarten. But $12 million of that is money the state already spends on pre-k programing. And $1 million of it would go to online program Senate Republicans want. That leaves a small sum to conduct a statewide expansion called for under the bill.

That's a far cry from the $50 million that advocates initially hoped lawmakers would set aside.

"We're only at the halfway mark. There's plenty of time left," Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said. "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."

Democrats held their nose as they voted for the measure to keep the issue alive. But they say more money is needed and take issue with the $1 million set aside for the online program called UPSTART, which was created by the Waterford Institute.

Kenley says the program would be a boon for parents in rural communities who may live a long way from a preschool.

But others questioned whether spending $1 million on a program that only offers 15 minutes of instruction was a good use of tax money.

Bosma wondered if the online program would meet quality requirements.

"I have no clue whether that program would qualify—I suspect it may not," he said.

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