State lawmakers say virtual pre-school will be part of pre-K bill

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - State lawmakers are confident a new virtual pre-school program will be part of the pre-K expansion bill this session.

“It’s really attractive because it involves the parent specifically in providing the program for the kid and many times the issue with children who are not ready for school is unengaged parents,” Senator Luke Kenely, R-Noblesville, said. "This really engages the whole family. I just believe it’s a much more wholesome approach that will have a better lasting effect.”

The UPSTART online curriculum calls for parents to spend 15 minutes a day with their child five days a week. The program started in Utah and lawmakers hope to bring it to Indiana to reach low-income families in rural counties that might not have access to pre-K education otherwise.

"I think it will be a huge benefit for about 60 counties in the State of Indiana that they have never had that chance before," Senator Kenley, who serves as the Senate Appropriations Chairman, said.

Lawmakers are planning to allocate $1 million toward the program in its first year. Senator Kenley said the average cost per student is about $1,400 and the program could serve about 700 Hoosiers in its first year.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R- Ft. Wayne, said this will be a trial run similar to how the brick and mortar pre-K program is an experiment.

“It’s obviously a limited role out just like everything else is with pre-K," Senator Long said. "We're waiting to see the results. Staying true to the poverty levels we’ve had with our initial program."

The program was not in the House's original pre-K bill, but House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the chamber has warmed up to it. 

“I think it should be part of a final solution on pre-K," Speaker Bosma said. 

However, educators in Indiana are concerned the program could rob children of some of the skills they are supposed to learn in pre-school.

“Kids need to be together in order to socialize. We need to learn how to raise our hand. We need to learn how to respect other people’s space and time and you can’t do that in front of a computer," American Federation of Teachers Executive Director Sally Sloan said.

She believes if the legislature is going to commit money to pre-K education it should all go brick and mortar schools.

"We can’t offer it broadly as it is so any money that can go toward that should go toward that," Sloan said.

HB 1004 was discussed this week by senators and representatives during a conference committee. Once that group comes to a consensus on how much money to allocate to the expansion of pre-K the bill will go to both chambers for a vote.