January 31, 2017

Voucher Feud Is Focus Of House Pre-K Bill

Article origination IPBS-RJC
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is the chairman of the House Education Committee. - General Assembly

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is the chairman of the House Education Committee.

General Assembly

Proposed legislation to expand the state’s publicly funded preschool program is tangled up in the ongoing feud over private school vouchers.

House Bill 1004 would expand the state’s preschool pilot program from five counties to 10 counties. It would also lower the financial threshold to help more poor families of four-year old children attend a state qualified preschool for free.

But some supporters who want to see the On My Way Pre-K program grow, are calling foul at a piece of the legislation that’s tied to the Choice Scholarship program. If approved, the bill would create a new pathway for how families become eligible for a publicly funded voucher to attend a private or religious school in kindergarten and beyond.

The bill passed out of the House Education Committee 9-to-4 along party lines with Democrats vowing to fight the voucher portion on the House floor.

During Tuesday’s committee hearing various education groups, lawmakers and parents argued over whether the bill would expand the use of private school vouchers. Indiana currently has more than 32,000 students using vouchers.

Yet whether the bill would expand use or just ease access depends on who you ask.

Supporters of private school vouchers say it would simplify the process for parents to remain at a private or religious school if that is where they already attend preschool as part of On My Way Pre-K.

But opponents say the provision offers another gateway for tay-payer funding to be diverted from traditional public schools. A legislative analysis found at least an additional $5.9 million would be spent on vouchers if the legislation is approved.

Currently, families have seven different “pathways” to be eligible for the Choice Scholarship program. This legislation would add an eighth pathway.

A similar provision was discussed in 2014 when the pre-K pilot was first approved but did not make it into the law.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, offered an amendment to strip the provision out of the bill but it failed along party lines. DeLaney said if the language was not removed, he would likely withhold his vote in the full House.

“People who want to support pre-K but have real doubts — moral, political, or philosophical — are being asked to swallow a dramatic increase in vouchers as the price of supporting pre-K,” he said

Bill author Reo. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, rejected the idea that legislation was an “expansion” of the program. Yet either way, he said, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that vouchers were legal in Indiana.

Those who oppose the provision, he continued, just have an ideological difference.

“I don’t see this as giving kids a lot more opportunities to a voucher because these kids are already income eligible,” Behning said of kid in the preschool program. “So it is really not expanding vouchers at all just giving them the ability to do what they think is best.”

Behning wants to change the family income qualifications for On My Way Pre-K to allow more students be eligible. Under his plan, all eligible students would remain under the threshold of the voucher program’s financial requirements.

Under House Bill 1004, a family of four could make $30,000 more than currently allowed and still qualify for On My Way Pre-K. That’s an increase from 127 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,861 for a family of four), to 150 percent of the qualification for the free or reduced lunch program (up to $67,433 for a family of four), according to legislative services.

The current five county My Way Pre-K pilot program is used by 1,585 four-year olds out of an eligible 9,155 children. The cost is estimated at $8.3 million a year.

It’s unclear how many more children could take part if the House bill passes since no budget has been included yet in the legislation, Behning said.

Governor Eric Holcomb has called for a doubling the state’s investment in pre-K to $20 million a year. It remains to be see what the House Budget Committee will propose for the program in the two-year budget bill.

The United Way of Indiana and their corporate and nonprofit supporters are asking lawmakers to spend $50 million to expand the program statewide.

The Senate is debating a similar preschool expansion bill but it does not include a provision related to the private school voucher program.

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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