Senate panel guts House proposal on preschool education

A House bill that would increase state funding to send low-income children to preschool was gutted in an Indiana Senate committee, setting up a potential clash between the two chambers.

The changes approved Wednesday by the Senate education committee bring the measure in line with what the Senate passed earlier this session and sharply curtails a $10 million funding increase sought for the state's preschool pilot program by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The amended bill increases new money for the program by just $3 million and sets aside an additional $1 million for a new online preschool pilot program that offers students 15-minute daily lessons.

While many lawmakers agree on the importance of expanding Indiana's current five-county pilot, which advocates say does not meet the state's demand, there is debate on the specific amounts of money to dedicate.

The Senate education committee voted 8-1 to send the amended bill to the Senate Appropriations committee. The House has yet to consider the Senate's bill or offer amendments.

The original proposal by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, would have expanded the reach of the pilot program from five counties to 10 and created a new way for students to become eligible for a private school voucher from the state.

The amended version, which matches what advanced out of Sen. Luke Kenley's appropriations committee, sends $16 million to prekindergarten.

But, that figure includes $12 million the state already spends on pre-K programming and the $1 million Republican senators want to set aside for the online program—meaning it increases new money for the pilot by $3 million.

Behning's bill also originally called for allowing students who receive a pre-K scholarship from the state and meet certain income requirements to be eligible for school vouchers beginning in kindergarten.

The Indianapolis lawmaker argued that it would create a smooth transition for students whose parents want to keep them in the same school after preschool.

Public school advocates and teachers groups sharply criticized its inclusion in the preschool proposal in more than two hours of testimony last week. It was stripped by the Senate committee's changes.

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