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Lawmakers end voucher study with few clear answers

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Indiana lawmakers ended a review of the state's school voucher program Tuesday with few clear answers — and more questions than when they started.

Supporters of the program that lets Indiana students use state money to pay for private schools argued Tuesday that private schools continue to outperform most public schools. Opponents said the vouchers are continuing a trend of siphoning money from public schools. But both sides agreed they could use more data on how the individual voucher recipients are performing, information that is not yet available in Indiana.

The assessment comes amid a continuing push from Republican lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence to expand the 2-year-old program.

Republicans first signed off on the voucher law in 2011, and the Indiana Supreme Court recently upheld the law, deciding it did not amount to the state subsidizing certain religions. Lawmakers approved a modest expansion of the voucher program earlier this year and will likely consider further expansion when they return for their 2014 session.

More than 20,000 students applied for vouchers this year, up from roughly 9,300 students last year. The study of the income-based vouchers for low and lower-middle class families was added to this year's program expansion amid concerns a more extensive plan could become a budget-buster for Indiana.

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, delivered a report compiled by his group and other voucher supporters dubbing the program a success. He noted broad approval from the parents of voucher students and pointed to a Web-based survey that showed the top reason families left the public school system was a desire for better academics and religious training.

"I have no doubt, in my heart of hearts, this program is changing the lives of these families," he said.

But Democrats on the education panel, including one who participated in the 2011 walkout designed in part to block vouchers, said supporters were conflating performance by private schools with the performance of individual students. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said without individual student scores it would be impossible to determine if vouchers are working.

"All you're doing is supporting private schools — you're not saying if it's working," Smith said.

But Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, pressed that the surging number of applications was evidence itself that school vouchers are successful.

"Could that not be a measure of success?" he asked.

The Indiana Department of Education, led by Democratic School Superintendent Glenda Ritz, notably did not make a presentation before the panel. House Education Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the DOE was not asked to present but could have signed up to testify.

Ritz was a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the Indiana State Teachers Association seeking to overturn vouchers but removed her name from the suit after winning election over voucher supporter Tony Bennett last year.

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