Pence pushes more funding for school choice but not preschool

Gov. Mike Pence today called again on the legislature to make education its main focus this year during his State of the State address through big changes in school funding, choice and more.

“Let’s agree here and now, Republicans and Democrats alike, that this will be an education session dedicated to improving all our schools for all our kids,” Pence told a joint session of the legislature.

But not as high on his list this year is state funded preschool for poor children, his signature legislative accomplishment from 2014.

He called for two years of full funding for the $10 million preschool pilot program he pushed hard to get through the legislature this past year. That program was hailed by Republican and Democratic advocates for state support of preschool as a good start, but some of them don’t want to wait two years to see it expand.

“Building on the historic first step we took last session, we will invest $10 million a year to fund scholarships for our new pre-K pilot,” Pence said “Because every Hoosier child deserves to start school ready to learn.”

When it came to education, the bulk of Pence’s remarks were familiar: themes he has stuck to since announcing his legislative agenda last month.

Pence’s budget priorities, presented to a legislative committee last week, made waves because they proposed lifting caps on how much state aid poor and middle-income families can use on private school tuition under the state voucher program. He echoed his earlier call for to more financial support for vouchers and charter schools — school choice programs that together could direct more than $50 million to private schools out of more than $200 million Pence requested in new spending on education.

“Let’s open more doors of opportunity to more Hoosier families by lifting the cap on the dollar amount that choice schools receive for students and raise the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program,” Pence said. “And because public charter schools receive significantly less total funding per pupil than traditional schools, let’s adjust funding for charter students to allow more communities to offer more choices for families.”

Pence also wants to expand “performance funding,” a program that gives extra money to teachers at schools that perform well on state tests, a move critics say would benefit wealthy areas with built-in advantages when it comes to standardized tests.

Also on his priority list is a program he calls “freedom to teach,” which would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to make grants that allow schools to be released from some state regulations. But unions have called that measure an attack on collective bargaining rights, which also could be circumvented.

Pence is especially partial to career and technical education, and he’s proposed a $40 million increase in funding for those programs. By 2020, he said he wants to see five times more students graduating high school with industry certifications that will qualify them for jobs.

The preschool pilot, which just got underway this month, is tiny so far, with less than 500 students expected to enroll this year, including only about 100 students in Marion County. It is expected to grow to at least 1,600 next year.

After an extended debate last year, reluctant Republican lawmakers, who feared escalating costs if state aid to preschool became routine, agreed to a pilot on the condition that results from the program first be studied before expansion is contemplated.

But critics say there is ample evidence that high quality preschool has a variety of positive effects on the future academic studies, work and lifestyles of poor children.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, the Democratic leader in the Indiana Senate, applauded Pence for mentioning the preschool program but said he was disappointed there was no push to offer more aid for poor children.

“We should not be just talking about maintaining funding for preschool in Indiana,” he said. “What people want to really see is an expansion of early childhood education for the state of Indiana. I don’t think we heard that tonight.”