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General Assembly

Senate panel introduced to vouchers

Bill could shift $58 million to private schools in 2 years

– Senators on Wednesday got their first glimpse at a strong statewide voucher program, with some Hoosiers asking it be halted before it starts and others pushing for it to be expanded even before it begins.

The Senate Education Committee listened to more than four hours of testimony and will vote on House Bill 1003 next week.

The legislation takes a portion of state funding usually provided to public schools and gives it instead to families who want to send their kids to private schools.

The income threshold below which a student is eligible for a voucher is about $62,000 for a family of four.

Families making $41,000 or lower would be eligible for a larger voucher. The amount of the voucher depends on average funding in individual school districts with a cap of $4,500 for grades 1 through 8.

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, asked lawmakers to rethink some restrictions House lawmakers put in the bill – including not allowing kindergartners to be eligible for vouchers.

Under the bill, children would have to attend at least two semesters in public school not including kindergarten before being eligible.

“Some children need additional educational options and they can’t afford them,” Elcesser said. “Why make (kids) fail first?”

Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, objected to Elcesser’s assumption that a student would automatically fail in public school kindergarten.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis – the author of the legislation – said the bill needs to retain the language to keep the votes together in the House. He said the kindergarten provision gives public schools the opportunity to recruit parents and students to stay instead of moving to a private school.

“If the program is too expansive, we lose votes,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn.

Scott Jenkins, an aide to Gov. Mitch Daniels, didn’t address the issue specifically but noted the “delicate” negotiations in the House and asked the Senate to give the bill a “soft and gentle touch.”

Others who testified opposed the idea of mixing state tax dollars with private – sometimes religious – education.

Indianapolis resident Jeremy Warner said the bill is ridiculous and encouraged a “no” vote while personally calling out legislators who left the room briefly for various reasons.

“I am not willing to pay for someone else’s child to go to private school,” he said. “My taxpayer dollars should support my community’s public schools.”

According to the fiscal impact statement on the bill, about $58.5 million could be shifted away from public schools over the next two years. Those schools also would no longer be charged with educating those students.

The proposed Indiana program would be one of the most expansive in the country. Until now most have been limited to poor students, those in chronically failing schools, or those with special needs. Indiana’s system would be significantly larger, offering money to students from middle-class homes and solid school districts.

The number of vouchers available statewide would be capped at 7,500 next school year and 15,000 the year after.

nkelly@jg.net

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