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Indiana House backs school voucher expansion

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Kindergartners and some other students in Indiana would be immediately eligible for the state's private school voucher program under an expansion plan the House approved Thursday.

The vote came soon after the Republican House speaker shelved a bill that would have shifted handling of voucher applications away from the new Democratic state schools superintendent, who opposes the program.

Representatives voted 57-36 largely along party lines to approve the Republican-backed bill expanding voucher eligibility, advancing it to the Senate.

The bill makes several exemptions from the requirement included in the 2011 law that all students spend at least one year in public schools before becoming eligible for a voucher. It eliminates that requirement for siblings of current voucher students, for children in military and foster families and for children with special needs.

Democrats argued it was irresponsible to expand the program when it is only in its second year and a lawsuit challenging it is awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court.

"Still we are moving ahead," said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. "Doesn't matter if the program hasn't been evaluated, doesn't matter that it hasn't been reviewed, doesn't matter what the court says. We're just gonna do it."

The bill had originally sought to eliminate the one-year public school requirement, which would make all current private school students eligible for vouchers if their families met income limits.

More than 9,000 students are receiving vouchers averaging nearly $4,100 each this school year — and House Republican budget writers decided that the opening up it up to potentially thousands of more non-public school students would be too great an extra cost.

Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said he was proud to send his children to public schools but maintained that the Legislature should do what it can to help families who believe a private school is best for their children.

"The stories that we hear from parents are amazing," Huston said. "The stories we hear from kids are amazing."

The fate of the expansion in the Republican-controlled Senate is uncertain. Some of its leaders have questioned making exceptions from the 2011 compromise on the one-year public school requirement.

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, held up a poster board during Thursday's debate with a quote from then-Gov. Mitch Daniels saying public schools would first get a chance to win over students and parents.

"Let's not make this the year that we renege on our agreements and promises," Austin said. "We can give it a few more years and see if it works."

Democrats had also been fighting a proposal advanced by House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, that would have shifted voucher administration from the Department of Education to an agency under Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

Behning had cited concerns about when the agency would begin accepting voucher applications and about schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz's involvement in the lawsuit against the voucher program before she won election in November.

Behning said he agreed with the decision by House Speaker Brian Bosma to pull the bill from consideration because Ritz told him the Department of Education would begin accepting voucher applications in March.

Ritz said Wednesday she didn't believe she should be treated differently than any previous state superintendent. She said she would follow her oath of office and properly implement any laws regardless of her personal feelings.

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