As they christened a new four-month session at the Statehouse on Monday, Indiana lawmakers announced a quick start on education issues.
A House panel will look at higher education funding, while a Senate committee will consider expanding the state’s voucher program – all starting before Gov.-elect Mike Pence is sworn in next week.
Those early items come as legislative leaders start the year with pledges of across-the-aisle cooperation and a mutual commitment to improving Indiana’s workforce.
Pence has called for improved high school vocational and technical education programs, and both House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said that will be a top priority.
“We have to create the situation and the environment where jobs can be created and jobs can be retained so that we can get all Hoosiers working again,” said Rep. Bill Friend of Macy, the No. 2 House Republican.
“There are pockets in this state where unemployment – we get really happy if it gets under 10 percent. That’s not good enough, folks.”
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said he’d like to see “enlightened restraint” from majority Republicans, as well as a two-year moratorium on divisive social issues.
“It’s the middle class’s turn,” he said. “They are the economic engine of this state. They are the reason that lights are on at local businesses.”
Pelath said the House should “fix the Tony Bennett mistakes” in K-12 education – a reference to the just-ousted Republican state superintendent of public instruction. He said the state should increase funding for the “overwhelming majority of kids who attend traditional public schools.”
Bosma said education funding will be a top priority for Republicans, too, as they craft the state’s next budget.
The education issues will be the topics of committee hearings this week.
The House Ways and Means Committee, which will begin the process of writing a new two-year budget expected to carry a total price tag of about $29 billion, is calling university presidents in for meetings that will start Wednesday.
After four years of belt-tightening, leaders such as University of Southern Indiana President Linda Bennett, who will appear Thursday morning, are hoping the new spending plan will include more money for higher education.
The Senate Education and Career Development Committee, meanwhile, is tackling bills that would expand Indiana’s private school voucher program and give new flexibility to top-performing public schools.
Currently, Indiana’s voucher law requires recipients to first spend at least a year in public school. A measure by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, would allow those students’ siblings to qualify for vouchers without making those public-school stops first.
Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, is pushing a bill that would allow schools with high graduation rates, Advanced Placement exam scores and more to restructure their school calendars, make more curriculum decisions and design their own teacher evaluations.