State House candidates differ on school vouchers

The two candidates for state representative in District 59 of the Indiana House of Representatives differ on key points of funding education, the largest budget item state lawmakers address when crafting Indiana’s biennial spending plan.

Incumbent state Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, is seeking another chance to have a say on issues that affect schools and students. But to return to the Indiana House for a sixth consecutive term, Smith will have to defeat Bob Pitman, a longtime advocate for Bartholomew County senior citizens.

Pitman, the retired executive director of Mill Race Center, is challenging Smith in the Nov. 8 general election for the District 59 seat, which represents western, southern, central and part of northern Bartholomew County.

Neither had a clear path in the May primaries.

Pitman defeated teacher Dale Nowlin in the Democratic primary, 2,472 votes to 2,117, to earn his party’s nomination.

Smith received 5,882 votes in the GOP primary to defeat two challengers — engineer Ryan Lauer, with 4,825 votes; and Bartholomew County Assessor Lew Wilson, with 1,745.

Smith and Pitman hold different views on the role of school vouchers in Indiana, which has one of the largest school voucher programs in the U.S. Pitman said he supports a strong public education system and Smith said the voucher system for private-school education should be expanded.

Smith said vouchers provide a needed opportunity for some students.

“Vouchers help ‘level the playing field’ in education by allowing children of lower-income families to have school choice — which should continue,” he said.

The state can balance public funding for private education while maintaining a viable public school system, Smith said, by the fact that Indiana spends more than 50 percent of its budget for K-12 education and state funding to all schools in Indiana is based on the average daily membership of the number students attending each school.

“Over the years, other formulas have been used that did not allow state funding to follow the student,” Smith said.

Pitman said public education plays a key role in society and needs to be supported.

“A strong public education system, enshrined in our first state Constitution, must be sustained this bicentennial year and beyond. An educated citizenry is an essential building block for democracy,” Pitman said.

Funding for vouchers has risen to $131.5 million annually, said Pitman, who thinks the impact of such a program should be better known.

“Let’s pause and honestly evaluate its impact on the public school system,” Pitman said.

Both candidates expressed a willingness to support expansion of state-funded prekindergarten programming, although Smith said a return-on-investment threshold would need to be met for him to do so. Indiana has had a pilot prekindergarten program since 2015 in Jackson, Marion, Vanderburgh, Allen and Lake counties.

“Results of the pilot, and convincing evidence of the value of preschool education, especially for disadvantaged students, makes expansion important. Unfortunately, our governor turned down $80 million in federal funding for preschool education expansion in 2014, but, fortunately, now supports applying for federal funding in this election year,” Pitman said.

Smith said he wants to be sure an investment in prekindergarten expansion yields a good return.

“Because a panel of state lawmakers recommended expansion of the current $10 million per year pre-K pilot program for low-income children, I will support an investment if it can be proven that this expansion would provide a $4 return for every dollar the state infuses into the program.

What's next

Coming Friday: Preview of Senate District 44 race in Indiana Legislature.

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Bob Pitman

Party: Democratic

Bob Pitman
Bob Pitman

Age: 67

City of residence: Columbus

Occupation: Retired executive director of Mill Race Center

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, master’s degree in college student personnel administration, Indiana University-Bloomington

Previous offices held: None

Previous offices sought: None

Community involvement: President, Adult Day Corporation when Just Friends Adult Daycare opened in 1987; past president, United Way Agency Administrators’ Coalition; Leadership Bartholomew County, 1985; Laws Human Rights Award, 2011; Honored by founding of Pitman Institute for Aging Well at Mill Race Center.

Family: Wife, Judy Krieg Pitman. Two daughters.

Pitman grid questions

What are your top three priorities for state government?

1) Ensuring quality public education for all Hoosier children, restoring cooperation among the governor, Legislature and state school superintendent, and ending the war on teachers; 2) Supporting Hoosier workers by raising the minimum wage and restoring a living wage for skilled workers; 3) Spurring economic development with a comprehensive long-term infrastructure plan.

The state study committee on redistricting will report back in December. What is your position on nonpartisan redistricting?

Partisan redistricting has resulted in a supermajority of 71 percent in the Indiana House and 80 percent in the Indiana Senate. This isn’t healthy for political discourse in our state. I strongly support a bipartisan, independent redistricting process with citizen representation, like in Iowa, which uses consistent, statistically measurable guidelines.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a stop-gap road funding bill. How should roads and other key infrastructure be funded long-term?

Well-planned, ongoing infrastructure improvements can be powerful economic development and job-creation tools. We must maximize their effectiveness by ensuring collaboration, not buck passing, between state and local governments in utilizing revenue-enhancement options that will not unduly burden those with lower or fixed incomes.

Milo Smith

Party: Republican

Milo Smith
Milo Smith

Age: 66

City of residence: Columbus

Occupation: Tax Consultant Inc. – owner and operator

Education: Attended IUPUC

Previous offices held: District 59 representative, 2006-present

Previous offices sought: District 59 representative, successful

Community involvement: First Christian Church elder; Family School Partners advisory board

Family: Wife, Diane. Four children

Smith grid questions

What are your top three priorities for state government?

1) Be accountable to taxpayers by honestly balancing the state budget while protecting reasonable state reserves; 2) Be accountable to students, parents and teachers by replacing the ISTEP test; 3) Protect everyone from burglary and home invasion by severely punishing those entering your residence with the intent to commit a crime.

The state study committee on redistricting will report back in December. What is your position on nonpartisan redistricting?

Hopefully the redistricting committee that is studying redistricting commissions in other states will make recommendations that we all can support to eliminate gerrymandering.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a stop-gap road funding bill. How should roads and other key infrastructure be funded long-term?

The General Assembly will transfer state reserves that exceed 11.5 percent of general revenue appropriations as follows: 1) 55 percent state highway fund; 2) 45 percent local road and bridge matching grant fund. A summer study committee was asked to determine how roads and other key infrastructure will be funded long-term.

What's next

Coming Friday: Preview of Senate District 44 race in the Indiana Legislature.

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.