In rare legislative appearance, Pence touts preschool

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence testified on behalf of a bill for the first time as governor today, making a personal plea for support for his proposed preschool pilot program.

His goal: Get reluctant fellow Republicans on the Senate Education Committee to vote yes on House Bill 1004 to create the program.

But the bill could still be in trouble. After Pence’s remarks, Republican committee members remained skeptical, asking a long list of questions about the cost, practicality and need for state-paid preschool.

Pence’s testimony was an unusual move for a sitting governor and a first in his 13-month tenure in office. The bill, which is near the top of Pence’s legislative agenda, would establish a framework to provide tuition support for about 1,000 low income four-year-olds in five counties to attend preschool.

Pence said preschool is critical to reducing childhood poverty because it can help the state’s poor children to be ready for school and to have a better chance in life.

“I have come to the conclusion that we will not succeed in this fight if we do not honestly deal with the fact that too many children do not do well in school because they simply aren’t ready to learn,” Pence said. “With great respect, I ask you to move this bill out of committee so that the Senate can continue consideration of this important measure.”

Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation estimates the program would cost about $10.6 million when fully implemented. No money would be spent on preschool until after the state’s next biennial budget is created in 2015, according to CECI. Start up costs in the first year cost would be about $650,000 with the first children enrolling in 2016.

Without preschool, many poor children never get on track academically, Pence said.

“They arrive in kindergarten and spend too much time trying to catch up, and when that fails, they spend too much of their lives dropping out – out of school, out of work and out of our communities,” he said.

Pence said poor children struggle in school through no fault of their own.

“It’s not that they are not willing and bright,” he said. “As a parent and as your governor, I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”

House Bill 1004 easily passed the House last month 87-9. But its fate in the Senate Education Committee is expected to be key to its chances for becoming law.

A similar preschool pilot program passed the House last year but was dismantled when it could not garner enough support in the Senate Education Committee. Committee members at the time expressed concerns about the cost and need for such a program. Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said last month he had not detected any change in attitudes about creating a new preschool pilot program in 2014.

Republicans on the committee who had doubts last year asked pointed questions today of the bill’s author, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, asked Behning if the bill was “premature” because it created a program that required funding before next year’s budget-making process. Kenley chairs the Senate’s powerful appropriations committee.

“If we pass this now, do we give it special treatment in budget?” he asked.

Behning said it would still be up to the legislature to decide if it should fund the program next year along with all of the state’s other budget priorities.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, asked whether the program was needed when the state already had federally funded Head Start programs for children in preschool and if preschool should be funded instead of adding more aid for kindergarten.

“Does it bother you we are not making Kindergarten mandatory but we are doing this pilot?” she asked.

Behning said the kindergarten issue was all but solved even without a state requirement to attend. More than 95 percent of seven-year-olds are now enrolled since the state added more funding for it last year.

Leising said she wants to hear about how the pilot program will interact with federal programs like Head Start.

“Nobody could answer my questions,” she said. “I want to know before I vote.”

Kenley said cost is his big worry. The program may only be planned for $10 million, he said, but there will be pressure to expand it in the future.

“It may or may not be a good idea,” he said. “I think that is really deals with a potentially large budget commitment on our part. So we have been having discussions on if that is a legitimate concern on my part or not.”

Committee members heard about three hours of testimony on the bill and expects to vote on it next week.