INDIANAPOLIS | The Republican-controlled Indiana House responded Thursday to Republican Gov. Mike Pence's call for state-supported preschool, voting 87-9 for nearly the same pilot program it approved last year that was killed by the Senate.
House Bill 1004, which now goes to the Senate, permits parents meeting income qualifications to obtain a $6,800 state-funded voucher to pay for their 4-year-old child to attend a high-quality private, religious or public preschool program at least 180 days a year.
"My heart just knows this is the right thing to do," said state Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, a cosponsor of the measure. "We're behind 40-some other states and our kids deserve better; this bill speaks to the kids that are most in need."
The preschool vouchers initially would only be available in five to-be-determined counties. There's no cap on the number of participants in those counties, but lawmakers are generally planning for about 1,000 children.
However, there's not enough money set aside for preschool in the two-year state budget that runs through next June, pushing the likely start date of the pilot program to late 2015, if it's enacted at all.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he's hopeful the Republican-controlled Senate will support the legislation, but admitted the preschool issue is "not leading the pack at the moment" in the Senate.
Senators last year balked at a projected annual cost of up to $30 million.
"We have made progress over the summer with some of the legislators in the Senate who have reservations about it, not all," Bosma said. "It helps that the governor is on board and that it has become a priority for so many other people."
Many House Democrats held their noses while voting to expand the state's school voucher program, which they generally oppose, but said it was worth it to finally get Indiana moving forward on preschool.
"Let us not stand in the way of fulfilling something that our side of the aisle has talked about for many, many years -- investment in early childhood education so our future best and brightest get off to a good start in life," said House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.