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General assembly

Expansion of vouchers faces scrutiny in Senate

– A key fiscal leader in the Indiana Senate challenged a major expansion of the state voucher program Wednesday as an “almost cataclysmic change in the education system.”

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, challenged supporters to take a five-year break and then study whether using public dollars to send kids to private schools is actually achieving positive results.

But the author of the bill, Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he isn’t interested in looking at academic results, instead focusing on the choice of parents to pick a school. The exchange between Kenley and Behning highlighted a hearing on House Bill 1003 in the Senate Education Committee. A vote is expected next week.

Indiana started its voucher program two years ago and now 9,300 students receive a state-paid voucher, which sends $37 million to private schools.

There are income restrictions and children must currently spend at least one year in public school before being eligible.

Opponents point to the program draining millions from public school coffers and say that some kids aren’t leaving failing schools but well-regarded public schools.

The Indiana Supreme Court is also weighing arguments on whether the program is constitutional because most of the participating private schools are religious-based.

The bill makes a number of changes to the program – the largest being that incoming kindergartners would now be immediately eligible for the program without first attending public school.

The legislation also would eliminate the requirement that siblings of current voucher students first attend a public school for a year before becoming eligible. Other changes would loosen eligibility requirements for children in military and foster families and for special-needs children.

And the bill allows family incomes of students who already have a voucher to rise above the initial income limit to about $84,000 a year without losing the voucher.

Kenley’s reservations about the bill are significant because the voucher program’s expansion will cost millions and the bill must get approval in his Senate Appropriations Committee.

He was concerned with removing the public school requirement for incoming kindergarten students, noting that component was necessary in getting the votes two years ago to create the program.

“If the child never gets the public school experience, the public school never had a chance to compete,” Kenley said.

Behning said that requirement wasn’t part of the original bill in 2011, and he personally advocates choice for parents regardless.

Kenley suggested that instead of a major expansion, legislators could set up a waiver for the public school requirement if the student is stuck in a school receiving a D or F rating.

Behning then shifted gears, saying there are other reasons besides academics for parents to choose a private school.

Andrew Kossack testified for the bill on behalf of Gov. Mike Pence and reiterated Behning’s position that the program is about more than failing schools.

“We shouldn’t presume only students attending low-performing schools should have the option,” he said. “Educational options are good for everyone. Sometimes it’s not just the performance of the school.”

Kossack noted the fact that 9,300 parents have chosen vouchers means it is successful.