- The Statehouse File
- Gov. Mike Pence talks to reporters Tuesday at the state’s first capitol building in Corydon following a speech about education.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence proposed a renewed emphasis on charter schools Tuesday, saying the state should supplement salaries for their teachers and make unused buildings available for the schools.
He also proposed help for private charter school operators that have multiple locations in Indiana, saying they should be able to mingle funds from different schools so they can be run more like a public district.
Charter schools "have been an essential element in the spectrum of innovation," Pence said. "And yet, even though they are public schools, they operate with several disadvantages compared to traditional public schools."
Charters are public schools that operate outside the typical district configuration. They can be "chartered" by universities, a state board, the mayor of Indianapolis or even existing districts and are freed from most regulations placed on traditional public schools. They were originally designed to be small incubators of innovation but a few private operators have taken over a number of the schools and now want to operate them more cohesively.
Pence's charter school proposals are part of a larger education agenda he outlined during a speech Tuesday at the state's first capitol building in downtown Corydon. Standing in what had been the House of Representatives chamber, Pence renewed his call for a state-funded preschool voucher program for lower-income families.
The plan calls for vouchers for students whose families have incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level or about $43,567 for a family of four. The governor has not released a price tag for his plan and said he wants the General Assembly to design the program in 2014 and then consider its funding in 2015, when lawmakers will write the state's next two-year budget. On Monday, the governor ordered new cuts in university and agency funding to try to maintain the state's $2 billion surplus in light of lower-than-projected tax receipts that have fallen below last year's numbers. Still, Pence insisted Tuesday that the state's economy is growing enough to help fund the preschool program.
"I simply believe that as our economy continues to grow, we'll make those budgeting decisions," Pence said after his address. "But first, I think the priority here is on what we ought to do. I think the time has come for Indiana to expand access to pre-K education to disadvantaged kids."
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said Tuesday that the "governor's agenda as it pertains to education is one that provides the need for both credit and concern."
Lanane supports state-funded preschool but he said, "Simply tacking early childhood education onto an existing voucher program does a disservice to young Hoosiers and our state's public schools. Any early education proposal must include local input."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he expects Pence's preschool program to cost as much as $200 million annually. He called it a program that "merits discussion" but he said decisions about funding must be made in 2015.
"It's really not, in my opinion, appropriate to consider these items outside the other budget priorities we have," Kenley. He said the preschool vouchers and other Pence education ideas "should be forced to compete with every other budget priority the state has."
Those other Pence priorities include a Choice for Teachers program that would give a stipend to traditional public school teachers who take positions at charter schools that have at least half their students on free- or reduced-lunch or schools that have a D or F in the state's grading system.
Pence said charter teachers tend to make less than their public school counterparts - an average of $12,000 less.
"Low-performing schools need the help, and charters typically pay less and need the help, too," Pence said. "Teachers that choose to make the move to a charter shouldn't have to do so at the personal cost they do today."
Pence also proposed:
- A state council charged with repurposing vacant or underutilized school facilities to be used by charters or other public schools.
- Lifting a cap on the number of dropout recovery schools for adults who have not completed high school.
- A study that would determine the return on investment of career and technical programs in the state.
"Our job is not to improve education at the margins, but to continue to push for success for every Hoosier," Pence said. "We need to do all we can to promote innovation and the best ideas. We need to do this in a fiscally responsible way, and we will. And we need to be accountable, driven by performance and outcomes - which we will do. We will do all of this tirelessly, with a boundless dedication to our kids."
Lesley Weidenbener is the executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.