Indiana’s voucher program passes state supreme court’s muster
By Christin Nance Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org March 26, 2013 2:40PM
In a Tuesday, March 19, 2013 photo, traditional public school supporters rally in the North Atrium of the Indiana Statehouse. The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 upheld the law creating the nation's broadest school voucher program, clearing the way for a possible expansion. In a 5-0 vote, the justices rejected claims that the law primarily benefited religious institutions that run private schools and accepted arguments that it gave families choice and allowed parents to determine where the money went.(AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Charlie Nye) NO SALES
Updated: April 28, 2013 6:28AM
The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld Indiana’s school voucher program on Tuesday. The decision was hailed by supporters as giving children more chances to succeed, while public school advocates warned of the effects of siphoning more dollars away from public schools.
The decision paves the way for an expansion of the program, which is currently under consideration by state legislators. A Senate bill would waive a requirement that students attend at least one year of public school before becoming eligible for a voucher and increase per student tuition from $4,500 to $5,500. Kindergarteners, siblings of current voucher students, children of veterans, foster children, and special needs students would become immediately eligible.
The court rejected claims that the program violates provisions of the Indiana Constitution regarding education and religion. The court emphasized that Indiana’s Constitution does not intend to prohibit religious institutions from receiving indirect government services, “such as fire and police protection, municipal water and sewage service, sidewalks and streets,” but only prohibits expenditures directly benefiting such institutions. The direct beneficiaries of the voucher program are not the schools but those eligible families who are free to select which schools to attend.
Early in the opinion, the court emphasized that it wasn’t judging the public policy merits of the school voucher program.
“Whether the Indiana program is wise educational or public policy is not a consideration germane to the narrow issues of Indiana constitutional law that are before us,” the court wrote. “Our individual policy preferences are not relevant.”
Barbara O’Block, superintendent of Diocese of Gary schools, was thrilled with the decision.
“It would have been just chaos if they had overturned it, with kids scrambling for a new school,” O’Block said. “It’s a great day for kids, families, and schools.”
Sixteen of the diocese’s 17 schools participate in the program at varying levels, with 813 students receiving choice scholarships.
W. Bruce Schooler, principal of Merrillville’s Aquinas School at St. Andrew’s, said the choice scholarships have had a positive impact on the school because it’s brought in 25 students from seven different communities.
“Those students fit in flawlessly even though they’re from diverse backgrounds,” Schooler said. “They’ve adapted very quickly. We monitor their progress and achievement and they’ve done very well academically.”
Schooler said the school is already at capacity — with 150 students — so expanding the program won’t necessarily allow them to accept more voucher students. But they are put on a waiting list and referred to other schools that may fit their needs.
“It’s a benefit to us as a school and for kids choice is always a good thing, but I have been a public school administrator so I understand and appreciate where they’re coming from,” Schooler said.
Merrillville Community Schools Superintendent Tony Lux said the policy isn’t crafted to benefit the lowest achieving kids in the state.
“I don’t think it’s good policy,” Lux said. “It may help some poor kids, but it’s not directed at helping the lowest achieving kids. Private schools are still very selective; if you’re poor and one of the best achievers you can get in.”
Lux said the state needs to be cautious about any expansion.
“It opens the door for a whole profileration self-declared mom and pop private schools with no criteria and no quality control,” Lux said. “And no guarantee of what is taught supporting democratic and constitutional principles. There’s no guarantee to improve the lowest performing schools, which potentially creates the future scenario of ever increasing segregation of kids based on ability.”
The case was originally brought against former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, and others, by a group of plaintiffs that included Glenda Ritz, the current Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Indiana Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, lauded the decision as victory for the 9,400 low-income students who currently participate in the program.
“We will continue the fight to make Indiana’s public, private, and charter schools the very best in the nation,” Bosma said in a statement. “Our state’s future depends on it.”
Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said the decision should encourage the legislature to tread carefully on expanding the program, particularly before exploring its fiscal impact.
“Therefore, before expanding this program any further, we will push for a study of the long-term impacts of vouchers. A study previously called for by members of both parties,” Lanane said in a statement.
Ritz was disappointed in the court’s decision.
“As State Superintendent, I will follow the court’s ruling and faithfully administer Indiana’s voucher program. However, I personally believe that public dollars should go to public schools, and I encourage Hoosiers to send that message to their representatives in the Statehouse,” Ritz said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.