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Indiana House education panel OKs voucher expansion

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The Indiana House Education Committee signed off Thursday on a large expansion of the Republican-backed school voucher system.

The measure would remove a one-year waiting period students have to spend in public school before qualifying for a voucher and qualify wealthier families for the program in certain cases. In some cases, it would allow a family of four earning up to roughly $128,000 to qualify for a batch of vouchers which cover 50 percent of the cost of schooling.

The panel voted 9-3 Thursday afternoon to send the measure to the full House of Representatives. The vote split along party lines just as the issue has for much of the last two years.

Gov. Mike Pence announced this week he was supporting the bill and it has the backing of the Republican leadership in the House. But the prospects of an expanded voucher system passing the Senate this year aren't clear.

At the heart of the battle is whether state dollars are spent on private or public schools. In one exchange, emblematic of the innumerable debates which have taken place between Republicans and Democrats over the last two years, Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, and House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, scrapped over whether raising the amount of each voucher would become a handout for private schools.

Battles, the top Democrat on the education committee, argued that raising the cap on each voucher from $4,500 to $6,500 could turn into a giveaway for private schools that charge any less than the new limit.

"If they've established a $4,500 fee, they obviously think they can provide those services for $4,500," Battles said. "I think this is just wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars, in my opinion, to let someone charge us a fee just because we're willing to pay it."

But Behning, the author of the voucher expansion, told Battles he was ignoring a number of safeguards already in place that prevent any group from fleecing the state via the voucher program.

"The voucher bill will not allow the institution to charge voucher children more than they charge non-voucher children," he said. He added that the 2011 law also limits voucher recipients to receiving 90 percent of what public school students get from the state.

"At no time does the voucher ever exceed more than 90 percent of the state general fund support. They're never getting as much as a traditional public school or charter school would get. So there are always caps for it."

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