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Limited school voucher expansion approved by Senate

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The Indiana Senate approved a scaled-back expansion of the state's voucher program Wednesday, setting the stage for negotiations with House Republicans, who are pushing for a broader growth of the divisive program.

The Senate voted 27-23 for the expansion, with 10 Republicans joining the chamber's 13 Democrats in opposing the measure. The measure will now head to a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators as the Legislature enters the final weeks of the 2013 session.

Opponents characterized the Senate plan as a sweeping expansion of the state's young voucher program, but supporters called the proposal modest. Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, said he and many other voucher supporters accepted some limits in order to win approval.

"It's a not a substantial expansion of vouchers, like it came over from the House," Yoder said. "I think this is a fair compromise."

The Senate proposal would allow siblings of students already receiving vouchers to qualify for the program, raise the value of each voucher by $200 and eliminate a one-year waiting period in public schools for students who attend "failing" schools.

Senate Democrats say Indiana's public schools have been under siege since the voucher program was first approved two years ago.

"Who is speaking for those 1 million-plus kids in the state public schools?" said Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, a former teacher. "All I hear is: 'The schools are failures. The kids are failures. The teachers are failures.'"

A series of amendments crafted by Democrats to either delay the expansion, by sending it to a study committee, or regulate private schools similar to how public schools are managed were defeated Tuesday.

House leaders, including Speaker Brian Bosma and Education Chairman Bob Behning, both Indianapolis Republicans, had envisioned a broader expansion. The House proposal calls for raising the maximum amount of each voucher from $4,500 to $6,500, eliminating the one-year waiting period for all students and raising the maximum amount a family could earn before qualifying for vouchers.

But some Senate Republicans, including Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, have said they were concerned the expansion would eat away at the state budget and also violate a deal struck in 2011 that gave public schools the first shot at educating children before they qualified for vouchers.

Gov. Mike Pence threw his support behind the House plan, which includes many of the changes he campaigned for last year, and said last week he will continue lobbying for a broader expansion.

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