Gov. Mike Pence expanded Indiana's private school voucher program Thursday, signing a law that immediately opens the program to siblings of current voucher students and children living in the districts of failing public schools.
Pence went to Calvary Christian School on the south side of Indianapolis to sign the plan approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature that will make more children eligible for vouchers without first having to spend at least one year in public schools.
"Our Hoosier students deserve every opportunity to be successful," Pence said in a statement. "That includes having the choice to attend the school that works best for them. Thanks to this legislation, Hoosier students and their families now have more educational options available to meet their individual needs."
Opponents, however, say the voucher expansion will hurt public schools by draining state funds away from them.
About 9,100 Indiana students currently receive vouchers in the second school year of one of the nation's largest voucher programs.
That number is certain to rise under the law that no longer requires voucher recipients to first attend one year in public schools if they have a sibling receiving a voucher or live in the attendance district of a school that received a state performance grade of F. The new law also allows voucher recipients to continue receiving them if their family incomes rise above the base income threshold, a sliding scale that includes $65,352 for a family of four.
The new law also increases voucher caps from $4,500 to $4,700 next year and $4,800 the following year, said Rep. Behning, who authored the legislation
"This law gives more Hoosier students the opportunity to access the School Choice program, meaning parents and students will have a greater say in their education," Behning said in a statement. "It is imperative for us to fight for every student to have the best education possible so that they can start off on the right foot and realize their greatest potential."
The Fort Wayne Community Schools, with a total enrollment of 30,600, has lost 1,200 students to vouchers, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. That's about one of every 25 students.
Allen County has a disproportionately high number of private schools, Stockman said, and she expects more to open under the new law.
"It gives churches, or really anybody who wants to open a school, a direct funding source," Stockman said.
An even greater concern is the new law's reliance on Indiana's A-F school rating system that's been criticized by lawmakers and others.
"Now they're going to that same flawed system to base vouchers on," she said.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a voucher opponent, won election last November because of voter disenchantment with many of the school reforms including the school ratings. Her office did not comment on the new law Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said the message of the last election was to analyze the impact of the school reforms.
"Unfortunately, the supermajority of the General Assembly — and now sanctioned by Gov. Pence — have chosen to go the other way. We think that's unwise," said Lanane, D-Anderson.