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Associated Press
Supporters of traditional public schools rally at the Indiana Statehouse on March 19. The state Supreme Court upheld an expanded voucher program in a ruling on Tuesday.

Constitutional? Yes, but …

The most revealing sentence in the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision upholding the voucher program is this from Chief Justice Brent Dickson: “We emphasize that the issues before this court do not include the public policy merits of the school voucher program … the desirability and efficacy of school choice are matters to be resolved through the political process.”

Yes, the state’s highest court unanimously rejected a constitutional challenge to the Choice Scholarship Program. Before drafting the law to establish the program, voucher proponents learned much from legal challenges to more limited programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and elsewhere. But as Dickson noted, the lawsuit did not require defendants to prove school vouchers are good for Indiana children or taxpayers. That’s for lawmakers to determine before they vote to spend even more on the program.

“Now that the court has made the decision on the legal issues, it’s up to legislators to decide from a policy standpoint if the voucher program is effective,” said Terry Spradlin, director for education policy at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. “For some kids it probably is, but we don’t know if that’s the case for all.”

Spradlin, a former legislative and policy analyst with the Indiana Department of Education, said today’s scheduled vote on the voucher expansion bill, House Bill 1003, in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee is key.

“There is a lot at stake here, and now the ball is back in the legislators’ court. Some want to move ahead and others seem to want to be a little more cautious,” he said. “This is happening very quickly. What happens (today) will be a foretelling of things to come.”

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has shown great reluctance to expand the program, calling out the bill’s sponsor for changing the legislative intent of giving students in a struggling public school an option to transfer to a private or parochial school. Spradlin said he would like to see lawmakers restrict voucher use to students choosing a school with a higher grade than the public school they attend.

Indiana taxpayers are supporting 116 voucher students at Cornerstone Christian College Preparatory School in Fort Wayne this year. The school earned a grade of F last year.

The fact that the chief justice raised the issues of desirability and efficacy should be a warning to legislators eager to expand voucher use, however. It might meet constitutional muster, but there’s no research to suggest it serves students well.

“School choice continues to prove its successes nationwide,” boasted Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, in a news release Tuesday.

But school choice has not proven its success in Indiana classrooms, only in the minds of lawmakers increasingly beholden to the same pro-voucher and anti-union interests who drafted the disingenuously named Choice Scholarship Program.

Another important takeaway: School choice is literally that – private and parochial schools choose the students they will accept, leaving public schools with less support for students with severe disabilities, refugees with no English skills and others who might impair a voucher school’s academic record.

Before Indiana lawmakers spend more on the unproven program, they must determine whether vouchers pass not only the constitutional test but also the test for sound public and fiscal policy – one that could be satisfied with a study from IU’s highly respected and nonpartisan education policy center.

If they proceed without it, Hoosiers should know it’s about the money, not the students.