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Kindergarten vouchers for all

A bill identified as a "School Readiness Grant" sounds like an effort to finally bolster early childhood education efforts in Indiana, right? Nope, this one is in the vein of George W. Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative," which was anything but good for the environment.

House Bill 1500 would pay parents to not send their children to public school kindergarten. Really.

P. Eric Turner, a Marion Republican is the sponsor. He wants to give a flat-out $2,500 grant to parents who keep their children out of school. His bill would direct the Indiana Department of Education to develop (at taxpayer expense) a school readiness test. If the child passes the test to prove they are ready for grade 1, Mom and Dad collect $2,500.

Here's the fiscal statement on the bill:

"The grant could encourage more parents to not send their children to public school kindergarten. If that occurred, there could be some potential savings to the state, depending on the school formula enacted by the legislature.

"As an example, if no students attended kindergarten in the 2011 school year, then the reduction in state tuition support resulting from the reduction of the 2011 (Average Daily Membership) of about 39,000 students would be about $109 million (kindergarten counts as one-half ADM). However, the cost of the $2,500 grants the following year would have been about $97.7 million."

I haven't had a chance to talk to Rep. Turner about the bill yet, but I suspect saving the state money isn't his aim. His bill would amount to a direct tax-dollar payment to parents who home-school or send their children to private or parochial school.

I've been told that parents looking for a full-day kindergarten often find that options are limited among the parochial schools. They choose public school instead and then decide not to move the child for first grade, so the parochial schools lose out on the enrollment.

The grant would allow parents to take their $2,500 payment to a private or parochial school to cover kindergarten costs. Along with the proposed voucher bill speeding through the House, the private and parochial schools are in line for a windfall, while public schools will see fewer dollars as enrollment dips. Death by a thousand cuts.

This bill needs some truth in packaging. Let's just call it the "Private and Parochial School Enrichment Act."

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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