While the Indiana General Assembly is likely to discuss limited expansion of pre-kindergarten programs serving low-income families, statewide pre-K funding doesn't look to be on the horizon.

Also likely on the education agenda: Education Savings Accounts, which would direct state money into a restricted-use savings account for parents to use on educational expenses, possibly including home schooling.

Legislators will also continue their debate over testing and accountability, although the current ISTEP test is likely to continue for the next two years while a new test is developed. State officials say Indiana needs a shorter, less expensive test and a quicker turnaround to get results to educators and parents.

Pre-K funding

"I think pre-K will definitely be a priority for House Republicans," said State Rep. Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis), who chairs the House Committee on Education. He suggests pre-K will more than double from the current five counties, and one option would be to extend it to counties that were finalists but did not make the cutoff in 2015.

Whatever the legislature decides, "It will not be universal statewide" due to limited resources, Behning said.

The 2014 General Assembly approved a pilot program, called On My Way Pre-K, which gave scholarships to low income families in five counties.

A coalition called All IN 4 Pre-K advocates significant expansion to more counties and would like to raise the income threshold for the pilot program from 127 percent of poverty levels to 185 percent, or about $44,955 annually for a family of four. All IN 4 Pre-K includes civic and business partners such as Eli Lilly & Company, Cummins Inc. and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

State Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn), chairman of the senate education committee, also suggests limited expansion — possibly a doubling of the number of counties and students participating.

"I think we need to keep it a pilot program ... until we find out how it's working," Kruse said.

Jennifer McCormick, a Republican who will be the new state state superintendent of public instruction, agrees there "needs to be a targeted approach to our most at-risk students" not already being served.

Before a statewide pre-K program can be considered, "We need to make sure we are talking to all stakeholders to consider what all pre-K entails and whether districts are even capable of having pre-K in their districts. ... We need to have a solid plan in place first," she said in an email.

School choice, Education Savings Accounts

Bills that expand school choice programs will be closely monitored by groups such as the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

"We expect significant efforts to expand choice programs in 2017," said Joel Hand, ICPE lobbyist. "Certainly, our organization will fight it every step of the way in any form it appears."

Currently, funding comes from the state's K-12 budget. ICPE has asked that funding for school choice programs be separate, "which would provide greater transparency to the general public," Hand said.

Kruse and Behning don't foresee expansion of vouchers, but they do expect discussion of Education Savings Accounts.

According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, when a family participates in an ESA program, it would receive most, or all, of the funds the state would otherwise have directed to the geographically-assigned school district. The funds are instead deposited into a restricted-use savings account for parents to use on educational expenses.

Kruse says a bill will be filed that allows families with special-needs students to participate in ESAs. Funds would be deposited with the state treasurer, and families "will decide where best to spend those dollars to help their special education child get the services that best meets their needs."

Families would receive a debit card, and the funds would have to be used on providers approved by the Indiana Department of Education, according to Kruse's office.

Another bill that could be introduced in the House would make the ESA's broadly available to even more students. "I don't know we're ready for that yet," Kruse said.

Behning said he doesn't envision a significant increase in vouchers in 2017.

"There are so many unknowns," Behning said. "It would have to be phased in to make it work."

One of Hand's concerns is the potential for fraud if families are given a debit card to use on education-related expenses. Also, legislation proposed last year was written broadly enough that funding could have been used for home-schooling. ESA's could take funding away from private schools that receive vouchers, he said.

ISTEP

Lawmakers also will debate a new testing system during the upcoming General Assembly session that begins in January. In the 2016 session, the legislature voted to scrap ISTEP-plus and students were expected to take the new test starting in the 2017-18.

Behning and Kruse say an extension of the current test is likely in order to give the State Board of Education ample time to develop a better replacement. The Legislature will set parameters, with specifics developed by the State Board.

Meanwhile, an existing contract with Pearson Education could be renewed for an additional two years, through the 2018-19 school year.

"My personal goal is to make sure it's a high quality assessment of benefit to kids," Behning said. Legislators plan to closely follow recommendations made by an education panel in late November.

It's anticipated the high stakes replacement would be given near the end of the school year; it will continue to include essay questions; it will be returned to schools and families on a timely basis; and essay questions will be graded by Hoosier educators. It's also anticipated high school end-of-course assessments will be used, rather than a 10th grade ISTEP, Behning said.

Kruse suggests a full ISTEP replacement could be three years away. "It takes two or three years to develop a new test that's fully aligned with our standards, vetted and field tested ... to make it the best test possible."

In another matter related to accountability, Behning doesn't see significant changes to the A to F grading system for schools. It might be tweaked, he said, but he doesn't believe Republican legislators are thinking about eliminating it.

Among other issues, the amount of money available to public schools through the funding formula "will always be a concern," McCormick said. She intends to work with legislators "to voice a need for additional funds as well as revisit the funding formula."

Kruse suggests increases "would be minimal." Schools received more money this biennium, and he suggests that for the next two years, "if anyone gets extra, it will probably go to transportation."

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