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All-day kindergarten dominates Update

Several dozen people braved below-zero temperatures Saturday morning to get an update on the current Indiana legislative session. The ‘hot’ topic on the frigid morning ‘ Community First Bank in Corydon displayed -6 when the annual Legislative Update started at 7:30 a.m. at the Harrison County Justice Center ‘ was all-day kindergarten and how to fund it.
‘I am a big proponent of all-day kindergarten,’ said State Rep. Paul Robertson, D-Depauw, who spoke to a roomful people in the Judge Roger Davis’s Superior Courtroom. Peter J. Schickel was the moderator.
The Legislative Update is co-sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of Harrison County and the Harrison County Farm Bureau. State Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, usually joins Robertson in providing insight at the Update, but due to a scheduling problem, Young was unable to attend.
Robertson answered questions, many pertaining to all-day kindergarten, for the entire 90-minute period.
Statewide full-day kindergarten came close to passing in 1999. The late Gov. Frank O’Bannon had made it a top priority but was unable to see it through.
Now his successor, Joe Kernan, is carrying the torch and has introduced a plan to expand the program to an additional 20,000 students by initially using money from the Common School Fund, an account established in 1851 to help schools pay for construction projects.
Robertson said there’s approximately $500 million in the Common School Fund; about $200 million has been loaned to schools needing it. Most schools don’t borrow from the fund now that they’re allowed to form holding corporations and issue bonds for building projects. Banks offer them low interest rates.
‘If the money’s not being used, it should be rolled over into the General Fund,’ Robertson said.
Some schools, including those in Crawford County and Heth-Washington Elementary in Harrison County, already have all-day kindergarten.
Once in full swing, full-day kindergarten may cost the state up to $150 million each year.
Kernan’s plan calls for parents who use the program to pay part of the expense, perhaps $500, at least initially. (Parents who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches would be exempt.)
Last week, the House approved the plan, but, on Monday, that legislative body failed to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Common School Fund and allow money in that account to help fund full-day kindergarten. The vote was 46 to 49. Democrats control the House, but four of them were not present for Monday’s vote.
House Speak Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, could call for another vote because there was no majority decision.
The Senate has not voted on the proposed plan yet.
Under Kernan’s plan, all-day kindergarten would be offered statewide by 2007, although it would still be a voluntary program for the schools and the parents.
Studies indicate that children about 5 are ‘ready to learn. They want to learn,’ Robertson said.
While kindergarten is not mandatory in Indiana, many parents opt to send their children to school half-day to get a head start on their education.
‘Half-day (kindergarten) is a lot harder on the parents,’ Robertson said, because transportation is only provided one way, leaving it to the parents to get their children home if they attend morning classes or get them to school if they go in the afternoon.
Proponents of all-day kindergarten are having a tough time convincing opponents, both legislators as well as taxpayers, that the program is a good idea when the state has a huge deficit budget.
Robertson said the state could actually save money.
‘For every dollar spent up-front early on, the state would save $7 later on,’ he said, because less money would be needed to provide assistance to the population in the form of food stamps and other types of welfare.
Robertson said the state should implement the program.
‘Why wait? We know it works,’ he said. ‘We had the money in 1999, but we didn’t do it. Now we’re behind.’
Other topics closely tied to money included capping college tuitions (Robertson doesn’t anticipate a bill to pass) and revenue sharing.
‘When things get tight (financially), we start looking at ways to make up revenue,’ Robertson said. ‘One of the ways is riverboat money.’
While Harrison County is getting less money than it would have if the state hadn’t restructured the distribution system, ‘when you look at the amount of money being taken in … the county is doing better than anticipated,’ he said.
Asked about ‘incubator’ programs for Southern Indiana, Robertson said legislators are trying to get new businesses started in the southern part of the state. While towns near Purdue University in West Lafayette are more familiar with incubator programs, Scottsburg Mayor Bill Graham has been working to bring new businesses to the Scott County area, he said.
‘While we’re still in a national recession, it’s the small businesses all over that keep us going,’ Robertson said.
He said legislators are looking at different ways to bring in revenue without raising taxes.