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Lawmakers draw close on limited voucher-expansion plan

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Indiana lawmakers drew closer Thursday to approving a modest expansion of the state's school voucher program following a meeting of House and Senate lawmakers.

Members of the voucher conference committee considered slight adjustments to a Senate proposal that expands access for siblings of students already enrolled in the voucher program, increased the amount of each voucher by $200 and eliminated a one-year wait for any student who would attend a "failing" public school.

Conferees are considering raising the amount of each voucher by $400 and expanding the number of students who qualify for a state voucher if they received a voucher from a scholarship granting organization.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he would work to approve a more ambitious proposal before lawmakers wrap up their 2013 session at the end of next week.

"Our goal will be to make it closer, obviously, to the House version. To give more low-income, inner-city families the opportunity to have a school of choice. The Senate version still expanded the voucher program. It just did so in a much more modest fashion," Bosma said. "We'll end up some place in the middle, is my hope."

House Republicans approved a measure that would have increased voucher amounts by $1,000, raised income requirements for some families and eliminated a one-year wait in public schools. But Senate Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns with potentially turning the voucher program into a subsidy for families already sending their children to private school, a costly proposition for the state.

Democrats on the conference committee failed to delay the expansion Thursday by putting the question to a summer study committee.

"My concern as we continue to expand the voucher system, is that at what point are we actually leaving a choice for our kids that are in our public schools?" asked Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point. "At what point do they get to the point they can't function because they're not receiving enough dollars because they don't have enough students?"

Legislative analysts have not affixed a firm price tag this year to opening the doors for all students to win vouchers, but previous estimates have placed the cost at more than $100 million. House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the point could be moot, however, because Indiana's private schools cannot accommodate all of the state's roughly 1 million students.

"It's limited by capacity," he said, noting a 2011 estimate that there were 22,000 seats available in Indiana's private schools. "We could say it would move a million kids over to non-public schools, but there are not a million seats in non-public schools."

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