- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A plan to use state funds to pay for children of low-income families to attend preschool is drawing questions from Indiana lawmakers concerned about the cost.

The Senate Education Committee pondered the proposal for more than two hours Wednesday afternoon. Paying for early education has become a hot topic among lawmakers from both parties in recent years.

Under the House Republican plan, families earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level in five selected counties would get state aid to send their children to public, private or religious preschools that meet certain education standards.

In a rare move, Gov. Mike Pence urged lawmakers to approve the measure during the hearing. It was the first time Pence has testified in favor of a bill since being elected governor.

“Reducing childhood poverty is not only a stated goal of our administration, but I know that it’s a goal that all of us share,” Pence said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that we will not succeed in this fight if we don’t honestly deal with the fact that too many children don’t do well in school simply because they begin their academic careers unprepared to learn.”

Supporters of the measure hope it will earn General Assembly approval amid mixed reviews of the effectiveness of early childhood education. Varying studies show different results, showing either preschool can be a great help to children or have little effect at all. However, critics point to limited academic impact, most commonly shown in the federally funded Head Start program.

Committee members both praised efforts to help underserved children and expressed the need to address infrastructure concerns, such as lack of necessary transportation for eligible children and funding issues.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, the Senate’s lead budget writer, expressed reluctance to commit to funding a future program before hashing out the next budget as a whole.

“We’re going to be funding everything in the state on level playing field,” Kenley said. “But if we pass this, does that mean it’s going to get a priority?”

The Legislative Services Agency, which analyzes bills for the General Assembly, estimates the project could cost anywhere between about $7.5 million and $30 million per year. An Indiana Office of Management and Budget report backed by Pence predicts the program could cost about $10.6 million for roughly 1,500 students.

The cost will vary depending on which counties the state selects for the pilot. Including Marion County, for example, could bump the price tag up.

Despite concerns, Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said building an early childhood education program for students of low-income families is necessary for Indiana.

“I understand there are issues with the bill itself, but there is a real need,” said Miller, the Senate sponsor of the bill. “I would encourage you to engage in the conversation on how to address that, whether it’s this bill in its form or some other form.”

A committee vote on the bill is expected next week. The full Senate’s support is needed before the legislation can head to Pence’s desk for his signature.

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