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Education committee backs looser school voucher rules

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A proposal that would make thousands of current private school students eligible for Indiana's school voucher program has been endorsed by a state legislative committee, although cost concerns might block its chances of advancing this year.

The state Senate Education Committee voted 5-4 Wednesday to approve a bill removing a requirement that children first spend at least one year in public schools before they can receive a voucher. Supporters say they believe all children should be treated equally.

The state this year is using about $16 million in education funds for vouchers for some 3,900 students.

The proposal now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee for review. That committee's chairman says requiring time in a public school is a key to avoiding at least tens of millions of dollars in state costs.

Supporters say the one-year requirement is a burden that can disrupt a child's education and limits the school choice that the voucher program was meant to provide. But public schools contend eliminating the requirement would take away their chance to compete for students.

The voucher law allows up to 15,000 children this coming school year. In future years there would be no cap, though voucher supporters have no estimates about what additional costs might be involved.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse said last year's decision to require a year in public schools was a compromise he reluctantly accepted.

"I think parents can make the choice on knowing what they want for their child and their family," said Kruse, R-Auburn.

State figures show that nearly 27,000 private-school students participate in federal lunch programs, which have family income levels that are lower than those set for voucher eligibility.

Republican Sen. Doug Eckerty of Yorktown, who is sponsoring the bill that would remove the one-year requirement, said with more than 11,000 voucher spots open for next school year, he believed the greater flexibility would help children remain in their current schools.

"We've got room to grow into that," he said. "We can certainly take those kids instead of flipping them back and forth, just go ahead and allow them to stay."

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