Senate panel votes to study preschool vouchers

INDIANAPOLIS - An Indiana Senate panel decided Wednesday that a pilot preschool measure needs to be studied further by lawmakers, amid continuing budget concerns.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to change the measure from a limited pilot program to an issue that will be studied over the summer.

House Republicans drafted the measure that would have provided vouchers for preschool-aged children to attend school in a limited number of counties. Families earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level would qualify for up to $6,800 to attend public, private or parochial preschools.

But slumping tax collections and the fact that the state's budget will not be taken up again until next year raised concern among many senators about spending money on a new program. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who is seeking the preschool spending, recently sold the state plane and asked state agencies to cut their budgets to make up for a roughly $300 million downturn in anticipated tax collections.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who also serves on the education committee, said he wanted to learn more about how the state could marshal federal dollars. He also said he wanted to see a similar preschool program enacted last year play out before deciding on another program.

"Before we enact a new program, I believe it's necessary to review our current resources and reach a decision that's realistic for our state," Kenley said Wednesday.

Legislative analysts determined the House plan could cost between $7.5 million and $30 million. Pence's education advisers estimated the price tag would be $10 million. But Kenley pointed out the program would cost the state upward of $270 million annually if expanded to all of the state's children from families earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence originally sought a more sweeping plan to pay for low-income children to attend preschool, but later threw his support behind the House plan. Pence testified in favor of the House plan last week before senators, as the measure appeared to be in trouble. It was the first time Pence testified on a measure since taking office last January.

Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said the governor wants to see some sort of preschool spending approved this year and would continue negotiating with lawmakers.

"Governor Pence believes every child deserves to start school ready to learn, and he believes now is the time for a voluntary pre-K program to help Indiana's low-income kids," Brooks said.

Wednesday's vote is hardly the final action on the measure. Lawmakers will have a chance to restore the pilot plan if it advances to negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers.

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