A key preschool proposal has moved closer to becoming law, but House Republicans and Democrats aren’t happy vouchers would be part of the deal

Although some Republican lawmakers said they were conflicted, a key preschool proposal — which includes controversial voucher provisions — passed the full House today.

House Bill 1004 would expand the state’s preschool program from five to 10 counties and loosen income requirements to allow more families to participate. Preschool providers could also apply for grants — which would be matched by local philanthropies — to establish programs or expand existing ones.

The part of the bill some legislators took issue with would let families who get a state preschool scholarship also receive a voucher for kindergarten, meaning they could access the state’s taxpayer-funded voucher program sooner than rules currently allow.

Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon, said she’s consistently voted against bills that would expand Indiana’s voucher program, and this bill ties her hands by putting vouchers right alongside preschool. She ultimately voted for the bill, but she said if the voucher language came back to the House for a final vote at the end of session, she might change her mind.

“The way this particular bill is written is forcing me to make a choice between changing the lives of kids in exponential ways and between something that I have consistently voted against since the first day I’ve been in office,” McNamara said. “I’m going to support this bill unenthusiastically.”

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, refused to vote for the bill, calling it “inconceivable” that he would end up voting against preschool. DeLaney said the bill, aside from the voucher pieces, just doesn’t go far enough, which is misleading to the state and angers constituents.

“We pretend it’s a statewide program and it’s not,” DeLaney said today. “We ask taxpayers across the state to pay for a program for some people in five or 10 counties.”

McNamara and a few other Republicans who spoke today voted for an amendment offered earlier this week by Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, that would have removed the voucher language from the bill. The amendment failed.

“We just start muddying the waters,” said Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, who voted for the amendment to remove vouchers from the bill. “…I have had a handful of people ask me to support vouchers, and I have had thousands ask me to support early childhood education.”

Indiana began its statewide preschool program in 2014, setting aside $10 million per year for low-income families to spend at preschool providers that met safety standards and offered programs that combined academics and child care. The two-year pilot served just five of the state’s 92 counties — Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh.

The counties were chosen based, in part, on how ready they were to start a preschool program, as well as factors that made them “geographically diverse and represent urban and rural areas,” according to a 2015 state report.

The bill passed the House 61-34. It next heads to the Senate, where committee leaders will decide whether to give it a hearing. The Senate’s preschool bill is still awaiting a committee vote.