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Judge weighs request to block Indiana voucher program

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Students who have signed up for Indiana's broad new school voucher program could be jerked out of private schools midsemester or forced to scramble to re-enroll in public school unless it's allowed to proceed pending the outcome of a legal challenge, state officials argued Thursday.

Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele said he would rule early next week on a request from a group of teachers and religious leaders backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association to issue a preliminary injunction keeping the law from taking effect.

The program, which allows even middle-class parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private secular and religious schools, violates the state constitution because it provides public money to schools whose main purpose is to promote religion, John West, an attorney for the group suing to stop the program, argued in Marion Superior Court.

"What we're talking about here finally is a program that provides state funds to send children to religious schools," West said.

Solicitor General Tom Fisher argued that the voucher system is legal because the state isn't directly funding parochial schools directly. Instead, it gives scholarship vouchers to parents, who can choose which school to use them at.

He likened a parent using vouchers to send children to religious schools to a state employee donating part of his paycheck to a church. Any benefit to religious institutions from vouchers was merely incidental, Fisher said.

West disagreed, saying that vouchers helped religious schools recruit new students — and potentially new members — they otherwise wouldn't have reached.

After listening to two hours of arguments, Judge Michael Keele said he will rule early next week on whether to grant an injunction halting the program until the lawsuit is resolved.

About 2,800 Indiana students have been approved for the state-funded scholarships, and Attorney General Greg Zoeller said more than 150 of them used the vouchers to enroll in private schools that started this week.

"Any injunction would be extremely disruptive to their education while this litigation is pending," Zoeller said.

Teresa Meredith, a Shelbyville teacher and teachers union vice president who is the main plaintiff, said any disruption should be minimal if the judge rules early next week before most school systems have resumed classes.

The voucher program takes a portion of the money that would have gone to a public school system and converts it into a scholarship for use at a private secular or religious school approved by the state. The plaintiffs, who are backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association, say 90 percent of the roughly 250 eligible schools are religious.

Unlike other systems that are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools, Indiana's voucher program is open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools. Families have to meet certain income limits to qualify, with families of four making up to about $60,000 a year getting some type of scholarship.

The U.S. Supreme Court has given its backing to voucher programs, ruling they don't violate the Constitution. But West pointed out that courts in several states have overturned voucher laws on the grounds that they went further toward supporting religious institutions than their state constitutions allowed.

Bert Gall, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice who is representing two families who want to use the Indiana's new vouchers, argued that courts in Ohio and Wisconsin have upheld their state voucher laws, and that their laws regarding the matter are similar to Indiana's.

Gall said after the hearing that if the preliminary injunction is granted, it would mean hardship for families whose children had already used vouchers to enroll in private school.

"You're literally yanking people out of their seat at private school because of the preliminary injunction," he said.

One of the parents Gall is representing, Heather Coffy, said she joined the suit because her children attend parochial school and that without the vouchers, it would require at least half of her income to send her children to the schools she's chosen

Monica Poindexter, who also joined the suit, said her 5-year-old son is in his second year at Holy Angels Catholic School and her 12-year-old daughter is starting junior high at Cardinal Ritter High School.

While a scholarship helped her pay part of the tuition last year, her daughter is now in junior high and the cost is going up, she said.

"Without a voucher, I don't foresee how I could do this too much longer," she said.

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  • AIR CONDITIONING
    Some of the private schools do not have air conditioning and large sport facilities because of a limited budget, but they also excel on ISTEP testing scores.
  • religious schools
    So, when the voucher system allows for students to attend Muslim based schools with tax payer supported vouchers will you still support it?
  • What is best
    You would think that parents wanna choose the right environment for the children and taken voucher away is a mistake public schools kids don't even know about the bible period and religion should be part of the school system don't deprive kids of hopes to grow and learn better environment that might be all the have in life.
  • Vouchers for Parochial Schools
    Stopping use of public funds to fund parochial school vouchers does not mean you have to enroll your children in IPS - it simply means you cannot enroll them in a parochial school.
  • It's just another way to hurt our children
    When we have a government that cuts funding to our schools, basicly to our future, how can we trust that they would do anything that follows our State Constitution. The voucher program, is just another step in a long line of cuts to public schools.

    I should not have to choose to send my kids to a private school, in order for them to get a decent education. My tax dollars should not pay for those that want to send their children to a private school.

    If the government would stop tieing the hands of our educators, and parents would step up and make their children study and follow the rules; we would not have failing schools. Parents need to stop blaming the schools, because their child fails, and face the facts that they are failing their child.
  • It Never Ends
    I think the scholarships are a fantastic resource for parents, like myself, who has had a child or children in a failing school. My children were enrolled in IPS schools last year. My eldest was accepted to Broad Ripple "Magnet" High School. The first week of school, she was pushed down a flight of stairs and robbed. She was a 7th grader. My children have been accepted into a parochial school, on scholarship, where the principal knows each child and eats lunch with them. My daughter will have the opportunity to take a trip to our Nation's capital...why are these disgruntled public school teachers and lawmakers trying to take away the opportunity for children to have an exceptional (and otherwise completely unaffordable) education. Without the assistance of these scholarships, the tuition would have exceeded $12K. That is almost half my salary. An injunction would mean my children would have to be re-enrolled in a system that has failed them...that's unacceptable.
    • taxes
      parents pay taxes and should be able to send thier children where they want with tax some they pay!
    • CONSITITUTION
      When did Indiana do what the Consinitution says anyway! Don't you believe in GOD! Our forefathers did.
    • Teachers should want best for students
      The teachers union is what is wrong with the school system today. The union is more concerned with keeping jobs for bad teachers than for the students education. Therefore we need private schools that are concerned with students education since our current system has failed to do so.
    • simply
      It is in direction violation of Indiana's state constitution, enough said!
      • Indiana Tax Payor
        As an Indiana tax payor, I do not mind my tax dollars going toward helping families afford to send their children to private schools. We should all want children to receive the best education, which otherwise might not be provided in today's public system.

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