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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, April 22, 2017 1:00 am

Pre-K, ISTEP+ bills head to governor's desk

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers approved the final structure of a prekindergarten expansion Friday as well as established parameters for a new statewide accountability test to replace ISTEP+.

The legislation now goes to the governor.

“I'm thrilled our lawmakers are providing thousands of low-income Hoosier families access to high-quality early education,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said. “This important legislation gives more children in more counties the chance to start their educational journey on the right foot. It will be a joy to sign this bill into law.”

The House passed the early-learning bill 81-16, and the Senate vote was 31-19.

“We took the bill and made a lot of concessions,” said Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis. “We boiled it down to something we can be very proud of.”

The current program serves 1,500 low-income children in five pilot counties – Allen, Vanderburgh, Marion, Lake and Jackson.

House Bill 1004 allows the Family and Social Services Administration to expand to an additional 15 counties.

The original counties can change the income eligibility from 127 percent of federal poverty to 185 percent of federal poverty, but the children with the most need come first.

The bill also establishes a tablet-based early-learning program for kids in rural counties. It would give priority to the 10 counties in the state with no high-quality prekindergarten options.

The only thing specifically debated was language in the bill tying the prekindergarten grants to the state's voucher program.

It says that a child who attends a pre-K program can automatically use a voucher to enter kindergarten at the same school. That creates another pathway for some children to avoid attending public school, but Republican lawmakers said it would affect only a handful of kids.

Still, Democrats in both chambers cited the language as the reason to oppose the bill despite pushing for an expansion of the program.

“Here we go again. We are going to expand vouchers,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We're going to allow more of the voucherization of the education system in Indiana.”

Others called the language a “poison pill.”

Both chambers also approved House Bill 1003 – an effort to overhaul ISTEP+.

The new test called “ILEARN” would be in place by 2019. But critics note the state has not yet picked a test. They worry the uncertainty and tight timeline could result in the same problems that prompted lawmakers to ditch ISTEP+.

Legislative goals for a new test are that it take less time to administer the test; results come back quicker and is more accurate. The bill gives flexibility for the ultimate choice to the State Board of Education.

The legislation passed the House 68-29 and the Senate 39-11.