Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Local News

February 24, 2014

Business leaders see early education as economic investment

INDIANAPOLIS – The state won’t pay to send poor children to preschool anytime soon but business leaders and key Republicans say they plan to keep pushing for the program.

An effort backed by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and United Way has been lobbying legislators to expand preschool opportunities in Indiana, one of nine states that doesn’t directly fund early childhood education.

The campaign hit a wall last week – despite support from Republican Gov. Mike Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma – when a Senate committee created a commission to study the program amid concerns over its cost.

Pence had proposed a voucher-style program to serve up to 44,000 of Indiana’s neediest 4-year-olds. With a push from Bosma, the Republican-controlled House proposed jump-starting the program with a pilot project for about 1,000 children in five counties at a cost of about $10 million per year.

Parents could only use the vouchers at the preschools and childcare centers that offer accredited programs focused on academic and social skills. Currently, only about 30 percent of Indiana’s 2,300 childcare facilities meet those standards.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, the powerful Senate Appropriations chairman, expressed concerns about long-term costs, expected to reach $200 million per year. The Senate Education Committee voted 9-0 last week to strip the House bill and create a study commission. Kenley, who sits on the education committee, called it a “logical step.”

“Instead of just saying ‘we’re for preschool’, we’ve to be able to say how we’ll pay for it,” said Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, who carried the House bill. “Are we willing to say we’ll spend $200 million less on roads next year? The money has got to come from somewhere.”

PNC Bank regional president Connie Bond Stuart, leader of a coalition of CEOs supporting early education programs, said she was disappointed. But she and her allies vowed to press harder during the summer and into next year to make a case for preschool’s long-range return on investment. They hope to catch legislators before they return to craft the state’s two-year budget.

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