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Voucher Victory in Indiana

“Indiana Supreme Court upholds school vouchers”
by Scott Elliott and Tim Evans
Indianapolis Star
March 26, 2013

Public tax dollars may be used to fund private school tuition under Indiana’s voucher program, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled today.

“We hold that the Indiana school voucher program, the choice scholarship program, is within the legislature’s power under Article 8, Section 1, and that the enacted program does not violate either Section 4 or Section 6 of Article 1 of the Indiana Constitution,” the justices wrote in the 5-0 decision.

The ruling, on a teachers union-supported lawsuit from 2011, ends the legal challenge to the program at the state level. The case could be made again in federal court. But in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar program in Ohio, making any further appeal a long shot.

The Indiana case began shortly after the program was created in 2011 when a group of teachers, school officials and parents who oppose vouchers sued the state, arguing the program was unconstitutional.

Vouchers allow low income families to redirect tax dollars from their local public school district to pay tuition when their children transfer to private schools.

In its second year, the program is the fastest-growing in history, jumping to 9,324 students receiving vouchers this school year from 3,919 last year. The program is redirecting more than $38 million in state aid from public schools to private schools, although officials say a provision that guarantees at least 10 percent of a school district’s per pupil amount be returned to the state resulted in a savings of $4.2 million that was redistributed among all public schools last year.

Opponents have argued that vouchers unfairly take away funds that public schools need to benefit primarily religious institutions, especially Catholic and Christian schools. The vast majority of schools accepting vouchers are religiously-affiliated. The lawsuit also claimed the program violated the state’s duty to provide a free and “uniform” public school system.

In 2012 a Marion County judge ruled the program was constitutional, prompting an appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court.

Indiana’s big voucher numbers are due in large part to the design of the program, which is less limited than those in other states. For example, Ohio also has a statewide program, but it restricts vouchers to communities with failing schools. Wisconsin, which has had vouchers for 20 years, limits them just to the city of Milwaukee. Indiana’s program is open to any student meeting the income guidelines — anywhere in the state.

Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett hailed the program’s popularity as demonstrating kids need avenues to attend the schools that best serve their needs. But Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett in November, opposes vouchers and originally was a plaintiff in the case. She removed herself from the lawsuit while she was running for office.

Ritz’s opposition to the voucher program has caused her political headaches at the statehouse. Earlier this year she had to fend off an effort by House Republicans to move administration of the voucher program from her office to Gov. Mike Pence’s supervision.

Indianapolis Public Schools have the most students within its boundaries using vouchers of any district in the state at 1,262, up from 644 last year. The number of students who have actually transferred from IPS is 947, up from 365 last year. The rest already were attending private schools using a state program that also made them eligible for vouchers.

But Republicans are aiming to expand vouchers further.

House Bill 1003, which passed the House and is being debated in the Senate, eliminates a requirement that students seeking vouchers to first attend a public school for at least two semesters for incoming kindergarteners. Any kindergartners who meet the income limits would be eligible. Other newly eligible for vouchers under the bill include students with disabilities, siblings of children receiving vouchers and children in foster care.

Eligibility for vouchers depends on family income and size. A family of four that earns less than $42,000 annually can receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education. Families of four making $42,000 to $62,000 can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

The voucher law capped the number of students allowed in the program at 7,500 last year and 15,000 this year. But there is no cap going forward unless the legislature decided to add one. There has been no discussion of a cap during this legislative session.

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