A proposal to expand Indiana's private school voucher program was denounced during a Statehouse rally on Tuesday as a step that would take millions of dollars away from the state's public schools.
About 500 people applauded and chanted "Yes to public schools!" and "No more vouchers" as speakers attacked the Republican-backed bill to expand Indiana's 2-year-old voucher system, which is already the nation's largest.
The expansion would allow kindergartners and some other children to become eligible without first spending a year in public schools. Indiana Parent Teacher Association president Sharon Wise called the plan a "massive overstep" that would strip money from traditional public schools.
"No matter whether you're a good school district or bad you will lose money — and this is unacceptable," Wise told the crowd.
About 9,100 Indiana students are receiving $37 million in vouchers this school year. The House Republican budget plan forecasts spending for the voucher program to grow over the next two years to $63 million annually, with the number of students growing to 15,000.
The event was held a week after supporters of the voucher expansion held a rally that included Republican Gov. Mike Pence and GOP House and Senate leaders.
The bill, now pending in the Senate, makes several exemptions from the requirement included in the 2011 law that all students spend at least a year in public schools before becoming eligible for a voucher. It eliminates that requirement for children in military families, foster families, children with special needs and siblings of current voucher students.
Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, the leader of the Bloomington branch of rally organizer Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said legislators should take note that Democratic state schools superintendent Glenda Ritz — a voucher opponent — received more votes in last year's election than Pence did in winning the governor's office.
Fuentes-Rohwer joined other speakers in criticizing the advance of the voucher expansion after then-Gov. Mitch Daniels cut $300 million in public school funding during the recession.
"We think it is wrong that our PTAs and PTOs have to hold bake sales and put pretty baskets up for auction while politicians redirect millions of our tax dollars to private schools," said Fuentes-Rohwer, who has three children attending Monroe County schools.
Ritz was invited to speak at Tuesday's rally but was in Washington for a previously planned trip, spokesman David Galvin said.
But supporters maintain the expansion is needed to give parents a choice. Lindsey Brown, executive director of School Choice Indiana, which favors the expansion, said it won't hurt the more than 1 million students who will remain in the state's public schools.
"The vast majority of families in our state will continue to be well served by those schools," Brown said. "This is about giving parents an option for finding the right fit for their child."
The Indiana Supreme Court is weighing the legality of the program after hearing arguments in November in a lawsuit pressed by the Indiana State Teachers Association. The association argued that virtually all of the voucher money goes to schools whose primary purpose is to promote the teachings of their affiliated churches.
Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, also spoke at Tuesday's rally, saying he believed Republicans were wrongly trying to direct more money toward the state's voucher and charter school programs before knowing their effectiveness.
"The battle is not over until we quit," Smith said. "We should not give those Republicans permission to destroy public education."