Lawmaker vows support for BCSC pre-k funding from state

A House bill that would expand the state’s pre-K pilot program from five to 10 school corporations may give Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. another shot at state funding for its local program.

The bill was mentioned several times during Monday’s Third House session at Columbus City Hall, where Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, and Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, took questions from about 65 community participants about pending legislation at the Statehouse.

Introduced by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill has cleared the House and moved to the Senate for consideration.

Smith predicted the bill would make it through the Senate and pledged that that he would push for Bartholomew County to be one of the next five districts in the expansion.

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In July 2014, BCSC learned that even though the school corporation had been named one of 18 finalists for the state pilot, it was not among the five counties ultimately selected: Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh.

If approved, the estimated cost of adding five counties to the five-county pilot program will be about $10 million, Smith said.

A complication with the bill surfaced last week after legislators learned that it contains language that would expand access to the state’s school voucher program.

The Associated Press reported last week that the bill, has been criticized by Democrats, pre-K advocates and even some Republicans for linking an expansion of pre-K to vouchers.

“Pre-K is a big issue. Vouchers (are) a big issue. This is an issue that should’ve been standalone,” Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, told the Associated Press before the House approved it 61-34 on Feb. 7. “Folks, this is what drives our constituents nuts back home.”

A separate Senate bill that has not received a floor vote also would allow up to 10 counties in the pre-K pilot, but doesn’t include the voucher language, the Associated Press reported.

The Indiana State Teachers Association and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education said the voucher program drains resources from public schools and shouldn’t be included in a pre-K expansion plan, the Associated Press reported.

Indiana’s voucher program allows parents to use public funds to send their children to non-public schools, including parochial ones. The Associated Press reported that Indiana Department of Education statistics show 33,000 students used vouchers last school year, compared to about 3,900 who used them in 2011-12, the first year vouchers were available.

Behning told the Associated Press that under his bill, students who receive a pre-K scholarship from the state and meet certain income requirements would be eligible for school vouchers beginning in kindergarten, allowing children to transition smoothly from preschool to kindergarten at the same school.

People attending the Third House session did not mention the voucher controversy, focusing more on whether pre-K is necessary or valuable to the local educational system.

Drew Robertson, Columbus, said there has been no controlled trial demonstrating the benefit of school-based pre-K programs for 4-year-olds.

Mary Kohen,  however, said she could offer anecdotal evidence that pre-K is valuable from her experience living in England and enrolling her children in school full time at age 4. The Columbus woman said she found it to be a valuable experience for her children, even though she was reading to her kids and providing educational experiences for them.

When asked by Smith if that reflected more of a partnership with the school and parents, Kohen said it was more than that.

“Pre-K gave them opportunities that I couldn’t give them,” she said.

Walker complimented Columbus and Bartholomew County on the job it has done to create its own pre-K program, describing it as a model of a community-driven approach to education.

BCSC Superintendent Jim Roberts said the school corporation is ready if selected as one of the next five for the pilot program, if the expansion is approved. Roberts said school corporation officials will have a statement to make in an upcoming Third House session on bills dealing with education in the Legislature.

Third House schedule

Third House sessions at 7:30 a.m. Mondays at Columbus City Hall will take a break next week. There will be no session on Presidents Day, Feb. 20. Third House sessions resume Feb. 27.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.