By SAMM QUINN
Evansville Courier & Press
A little more than a week from the end of Indiana’s 2013 legislative session, House leaders are pushing their Senate colleagues to accept a broader expansion of the state’s two-year-old private school voucher program.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said that even though the Senate scaled back the voucher expansion measure from its original form, he hopes the two chambers can find an agreement somewhere in the middle.
“Our goal will be to make it closer, obviously, to the House version to give more low-income, inner-city families the opportunity to have school of choice,” Bosma said. “The Senate version still expanded the voucher program it just did so in a much more modest fashion.”
He said his chamber will focus on changing the amount of the voucher and what the study committee, which the Senate added to the bill, will focus on.
Under the 2011 voucher law, Indiana extends funding that starts at $4,500 for children in grades 1 through 8 to students who seek to attend private schools, as long as they meet two requirements. They must spend at least one year in a public school first, and their families cannot earn more than about $64,000 annually for a family of four.
This year, lawmakers have sought to expand that program and such an expansion is a key part of Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s first-year legislative agenda. The question is just how far they’ll go.
In House Bill 1003, the House sought to allow children starting kindergarten now to qualify without spending a year in public school. It also would have increased the size of the voucher to $5,000 next year and $5,500 the year after that.
And it would have increased the maximum income for special education students and the children of military veterans so that more of them would qualify.
The Senate, though, opted to keep the required one year in public school, and it also cut those annual $500 increases to $100 per year.
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said Thursday that he’d like final language to increase the voucher cap to $4,700 for 2013 and $4,900 for 2014.
“We’re trying to work with the Senate,” Behning said. “I don’t think we’re asking for a lot.”
Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, said he wants the bill’s language to include a provision that would keep private schools from receiving voucher money if they received a D or F on the state’s grading scale two years in a row.
“Our data shows that students are leaving higher performing public schools to use vouchers to attend private schools in some cases that in fact have a D or F ranking,” he said.
But Behning said vouchers allow parents to make the decision on where their child should go to school.
“What are we doing for those kids today that are in D or F schools?” he said. “I believe this provides options.”
Young also said he wants to include an amendment that would keep private schools that have been in operation for less than three years from taking voucher students because the state won’t have data on the school’s performance, but Behning said he doesn’t agree with that.
“Once they become a voucher school they immediately start taking ISTEP so I think they’d have a grade the following year,” Behning said. “But we’ll look at it.”
Lawmakers took no action on the bill, but Behning said they will continue to discuss the issue.
Legislators are also far from an agreement on preschool legislation that would have created a pilot program in five counties to provide preschool for 3-and 4-year-old children from low- and moderate-income households.
The Senate completely stripped the bill of preschool language after the House voted unanimously to pass it.
Behning, who is also House Bill 1004’s author, said he hopes the Senate will consider changing their bill.
“Preschool education is something we should invest in,” he said.
But Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the state already has programs that provide funding for early childhood education and should focus on improving those first.
House Democrats who sought to limit or stop the expansion of the voucher program say they are displeased that the Senate opted not to adopt the preschool pilot program.
“I’m frustrated that the Senate chose to do the things that they did,” said Rep. Shelli Vandenburgh, D-Crown Point. “I really think we can do much better as a state.”