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Senate panel approves diluted voucher expansion

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The Indiana Senate Education Committee is signing off on a limited expansion of school vouchers one day after the state's highest court deemed vouchers constitutional.

The Senate panel rewrote House voucher expansion legislation to allow siblings of voucher school students to qualify for the program. It also would qualify students who would otherwise attend a failing public school for a voucher without having to spend the one-year period in public schools currently required by law.

"We're placing a high value on that arrangement and the family's right to make that choice," said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who drafted the amendment.

The new bill marks something of a compromise between voucher supporters and opponents.

"I appreciate the lipstick, I will support the lipstick and wait for the pig," said Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, a voucher opponent. She voted for Kenley's amendment, but then voted against the amended bill.

House authors have been pushing to eliminate a one-year waiting period in public schools before students can qualify for vouchers. The compromise was designed to give public schools the "first shot" at a student, which ultimately won the votes needed to pass Indiana's sweeping 2011 voucher law.

The Senate version also limits how much more would be allocated for each voucher. The House bill sought to raise the cap from $4,500 per student to $5,500 in the next two years. The Senate measure would raise the cap to $4,700.

The panel also voted Wednesday to study preschool vouchers rather than spend $7 million annually on a pilot preschool program sought by House Republicans. Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, who wrote the amendment, said legislative analysts determined Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration already had enough money to pay for preschool vouchers.

"FSSA can use existing dollars if they want to fund scholarships for low-income children, so this empowers them to do that," he said.

The changes set up a battle between House and Senate negotiators and are highly unlikely to remain the final versions lawmakers approve before leaving town at the end of April.

The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld Indiana's sweeping charter school law on Tuesday, determining the measure did not amount to the state funding religious institutions, as opponents have argued.

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