Senate approves pre-K expansion

March 1st, 2017

By Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

Indiana’s prekindergarten pilot program could expand modestly under a bill passed by the Indiana Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 276 was approved 41-9 and would allow for providers in all counties instead of just the five in the pilot. It also would provide $3 million in additional funding to the program.

But that is far less than House Republicans and Gov. Eric Holcomb are seeking. Ultimately the decision will come in the state budget at the end of April.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, said that when he was young, he didn’t know any families that were in distress because of drugs or addiction. And many mothers then stayed at home with their children to help prepare them for school. But he said now “we are not in a perfect world” and quality early learning has shown long-term benefits.

Lawmakers in 2014 established the pilot in five counties, including Allen County. About 1,500 children from low-income families are served in the state program now.

Some question the decision to expanding the program before a full study tracking the children’s performance through third grade is complete.

Holdman said early results from that study show the children “are gaining skills at a higher rate than their peers.”

In general, he also disputed the so-called “third-grade fade out,” where once children get to third grade, the benefits of quality preschool are said to disappear.

No one spoke against the measure, and the only area senator to oppose the bill was Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington.

The bill provides $16 million annually for the pre-K program but the number is misleading. The fiscal impact statement said $12 million is already spent on two existing early learning state programs. And $1 million in the bill is set aside for a virtual preschool program.

So that means there is only $3 million in new annual funding when Holcomb and House Speaker Brian Bosma want $10 million.

“We believe it’s reasonable and appropriate and advantageous to reasonably expand the pre-K program by doubling the funding for it,” Holdman said. “We’ll work with our Senate colleagues to try to get them as far as we can.”

Senate Democrat Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said Holdman was so effective in explaining the bill that Lanane wonders why more funding wasn’t included.

Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, said she attended a workshop on early learning 15 years ago, yet Indiana is still debating it.

“Pre-K does make a difference,” she said. “I appreciate leaving the income guidelines to the poorest of the poor. Those are the kids who will benefit the most.”