New life was breathed into Gov. Mike Pence’s ailing preschool pilot program proposal under a deal forged by a committee of Democrats and Republicans from both legislative chambers.
The pilot, stripped out of House Bill 1004 by Senate Republicans concerned about the program’s potential long term costs, was put back in and could even serve more kids than originally estimated.
Under the revision, Indiana would take its name off the list of just nine states that provide no direct state aid for poor children to attend preschool. It passed the House this afternoon 92-8, getting two more votes than the original bill. But the greater test is the Senate, which has always been more skeptical of state-supported preschool. A vote is expected in the Senate later today.
Pence, Democrats and Republican budget hawks all got something out of the deal.
Many Democrats have long advocated for state preschool aid and supported the concept behind creating the pilot program but strongly opposed a provision that made participants automatically eligible to receive private school tuition aid under the K-12 voucher program when they completed preschool.
Democrats almost uniformly oppose vouchers, which allow low income families to redirect state aid set aside for a child’s public school education to pay private school tuition, as harmful to public schools.
The compromise drops the voucher provision, which may clear the way for wide Democratic support of the bill.
“That was the most egregious part of the bill for Democrats,” said Rep. Shelli Vandenburgh, D-Crown Point, describing the bill as now truly bipartian. “This is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s been a bipartisan effort.”
Conservative budget hawks, especially Senate Republicans, had opposed the pilot program for setting up a plan for new spending outside of the biennial budget-making process, which won’t occur until 2015.
The new version of the bill addresses those concerns in several ways. It would fund the preschool program from the existing budget of the Family and Social Services Administration. The bill would allow FSSA to keep up to $10 million Pence had ordered it to cut due to poor revenue projections and use that money to fund the program.
For families, tuition aid would range between $2,500 and $6,800 a year depending on income.
In addition, the bill now allows preschool providers or FSSA to match another $5 million in grants or private contributions. The entire program, therefore, could spend $15 million in public and private money on tuition support for poor children to attend preschools.
The revised bill also makes fewer families eligible, focusing the program on poorer children. It drops the income eligibility limit for a family four to $30,289 annually, down from the prior plan to allow those with income up to $44,122.
Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, had been a high profile skeptic of the preschool pilot as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. But he praised the compromise bill as hitting the “sweet spot” between too much state involvement in family life and the genuine needs of the poorest children.
“We are beginning to hone down to who those people are in the state who really need help,” he said.
Pence’s education adviser, Claire Fiddian-Green, said the program will serve at least 1,000 students in five counties that FSSA will select. But it could serve as many as 4,000, House Speaker Brian Bosma said later. It is only limited by budget. There is no cap on the number of participants.
Finally, if the revised bill passes, Pence could claim a victory for his battered legislative agenda, which has seen other ideas, like innovation grants and pay stipends for relocating teachers, fail to gain enough traction to pass.
Pence made launching a preschool program one of the centerpieces of his legislative push this session, and just two weeks ago his chances of success seemed small after the pilot was dropped and the bill was revised to simply study the question of preschool aid.
The latest version sets aside up to $1 million of the program’s revenue for a study of its effectiveness at raising student academic achievement.