A contentious proposal to use taxpayer money to help Indiana parents send their children to private schools cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.
The Republican-controlled House Education Committee voted 8-5 along party lines to advance the bill after hearing more than nine hours of comments about the idea over two days. The voucher bill, which now moves to the full GOP-led House, is a priority for Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican.
Supporters said vouchers allow low- and middle-income families to have the same educational options as wealthier Hoosiers.
Committee Chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said some Indiana students are not getting the best services they can get in public schools and deserve the ability to choose a better option. But he said the bill was not aimed at undermining Indiana's public school system.
"This is not an indictment of schools," he said. "This is not an indictment of educators."
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican who backs Daniels agenda, said in a statement that the vote Wednesday sends a message to Indiana families.
"All students — no matter their parents' income or ZIP code — deserve the chance to make educational decisions that best suit the needs of their children," he said. "Opportunity scholarships, like all proposals that increase educational options, provide hope for families and children who previously may have had very little."
Critics say vouchers siphon money away from public schools and that private schools can pick and choose their students while public schools accept everyone.
"It's very hard for me to sit here and not become emotional," said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis. "When will it stop? When will we really look at education holistically and not just for a few?"
Under the proposal, families of four making up to $81,000 a year could receive a scholarship to a private school through the voucher program. Some Democrats said that was far too high of an income limit, and that the proposal would be less onerous if it were directed only at families that truly need help, such as those who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program and have children attending failing public schools.
"It infuriates me that we can have this discussion about kids and they're not in that group of free and reduced lunch," said Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point. "We're opening this up so much."
Opponents also question whether needy families would actually be able to use the vouchers to send their children to private schools since they would have to cover any remaining tuition costs and find transportation to get their children to school every day.
Rep. Dave Cheatham, D-North Vernon, said the state would ideally have enough money to adequately fund public schools before trying a voucher program.
"We don't live in a perfect world," he said. "It's a shame that we have to hurt students to help students. That's not good public policy."
Under the proposal:
— Only children currently attending public schools would be eligible for vouchers.
— Families that qualify for the reduced lunch program — those earning about $40,000 for a family of four — would be eligible for vouchers worth up to 90 percent of the per-student funding their current public school district receives. That amount varies by district, but the statewide average is about $5,500. That means those families would get vouchers worth up to about $4,950, and the school district would no longer get the money since it would no longer be educating that student.
— Families earning up to twice the reduced lunch program limits — about $80,000 for a family of four — would qualify for vouchers up to 50 percent of their district's per-pupil funding. Using the statewide average, those vouchers would be worth up to about $2,750.
— The maximum voucher amount for students in grade kindergarten through 8th grade would be $4,500.
— Private schools participating in the program would have to take statewide ISTEP exams as public schools do and would fall under state academic accountability laws.
— Because the scholarship amounts are only a percentage of public school per-student funding, the state could save money from the program. Any savings would be redistributed to public schools statewide.