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Justices back school vouchers 5-0

Way cleared for expansion; merits of policy not ruled

– The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday likely cleared the way for further expansion of the state’s voucher system when it found the program sending millions in tax dollars to private schools is constitutional.

The 5-0 ruling was hailed by supporters of educational choice at the same time lawmakers are considering significant changes that will open up the program to more children, sometimes at higher income levels.

“I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income,” Gov. Mike Pence said after the decision. “Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has unanimously upheld this important program, we must continue to find ways to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families.”

A committee vote is scheduled for today on the proposed expansion. One of the major changes would be allowing incoming kindergartners to use a voucher before first attending public school for one year.

The court ruling began by noting the justices aren’t making judgment on the public policy merits of the 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. Our individual policy preferences are not relevant. In the absence of a constitutional violation, the desirability and efficacy of school choice are matters to be resolved through the political process,” it said.

The court heard the case in November. At the time, the key question was whether the program directly benefits religious institutions or is just an incidental advantage of educational choice.

The justices ruled, “The principal actors and direct beneficiaries under the voucher program are neither the state nor program-eligible schools, but lower-income Indiana families with school-age children.”

Legislators passed the voucher law in 2011. It is the most expansive program in the country because its income guidelines are wide and students from all schools – not just failing schools – are eligible. A family of four, for instance, can earn up to $62,000 and still qualify for tuition assistance.

This year, more than 9,300 students received vouchers, sending $37million in tax money to private institutions that might otherwise go to public schools.

The Indiana State Teachers Association and a host of plaintiffs filed suit against the program a few months after its passage. They claim it will drain resources from public schools and that tax money should not be used to support religious education.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that state vouchers for parochial students don’t violate the U.S. Constitution. But the ISTA lawsuit is based on the Indiana Constitution, which has different language. The Indiana Constitution says “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz – who originally was a plaintiff in the case until she was elected in November – was disappointed by the decision.

“While I have great respect for the court, I am disappointed in today’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,” she said.

Opponents also argued that the voucher program essentially went against the Indiana Constitution’s requirement for the General Assembly to provide a “general and uniform system of common schools.”

The plaintiffs contend that by enacting a program that could divert as many as 60 percent of Indiana public school students to private schools, the legislature has departed from the common school system.

“So long as a ‘uniform’ public school system, ‘equally open to all’ and ‘without charge,’ is maintained, the General Assembly has fulfilled the duty imposed by the Education Clause,” the court ruling said.

“The plaintiffs proffer no evidence that maximum participation in the voucher program will necessarily result in the elimination of the Indiana public school system.”

GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma called the decision a victory for low-income students whose families have chosen to use vouchers.

“It is also a victory for every Hoosier that supports school choice as a means of making every traditional public, private, and charter schools compete to give the very best education to their students,” he said. “We will continue the fight to make Indiana’s public, private, and charter schools the very best in the nation. Our state’s future depends on it.”

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said the legislature should be careful not to judge the ruling of constitutionality as an affirmation on the program’s goals of effectiveness.

“We echo the previous sentiments of our colleagues across the aisle as to the concern over the long-term impact of vouchers on our public schools,” he said. “Therefore, before expanding this program any further, we will push for a study of the long-term impacts of vouchers.”