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Nation's broadest voucher plan passes final hurdle

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Indiana will create the nation's broadest private school voucher system and enact other sweeping education changes, making the state a showcase of conservative ideas just as Gov. Mitch Daniels nears an announcement on whether he will make a 2012 presidential run.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature handed Daniels a huge victory Wednesday when the GOP-led House voted 55-43 to give final approval to a bill creating the controversial voucher program. It would allow even middle-class families to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools.

Unlike other systems that are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools, Indiana's voucher program will be open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools. Families would 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.

Daniels' agenda mirrors ideas being pushed nationwide by Republicans empowered by 2010 election victories. But Daniels has successfully led Indiana — a conservative state not known for going out on a limb — into uncharted education territory.

"Other states are going to be taking notice about how far Indiana's going," said Robert Enlow, president of the Foundation for Educational Choice.

The successes couldn't come at a better time for the two-term governor, who has said he'll announce his intentions on a possible White House run sometime after the legislative session ends Friday.

Daniels said in a statement Wednesday that the General Assembly's passage of the education bills put "the interests of Hoosier kids first, and placed Indiana first among the states in reforming and improving public education."

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said Daniels is thinking of what's best for students, not his own political ambitions, when advocating the education overhaul.

"I'm sure he's not worried about a presidential run," Bosma said.

The bills approval Wednesday brought applause from state Republicans, school choice advocates and others who said Indiana would become a model for the rest of the country.

"Indiana is now at the forefront of a national movement that demands all children receive the academic tools necessary for success," State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Bennett said in statement.

Opponents say Daniels' agenda will hurt public schools by taking money and students away from them.

"He says that his motivation is to improve student achievement, but so many of these reform measures are not aimed at improving student achievement," said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the state's largest teachers union. "He wouldn't be siphoning public money from public schools if he was concerned about those students who remain at public schools."

The voucher proposal was a key reason behind a five-week boycott earlier this session by House Democrats, who returned to the state after winning concessions on the voucher bill and other legislation. Democrats also opposed other parts of Daniels' agenda.

The House voted 61-37 for Daniels' proposal aimed at expanding charter schools, which are public schools free of many state regulations. The bill allows more entities to authorize charter schools and lets charter schools cheaply buy unused buildings owned by traditional school corporations. The bill also increases accountability rules for charters.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said every dollar that flows to charter schools is going to flow away from public schools at a time when they are struggling to provide services.

"It's a zero sum game," he said.

Legislators previously have approved including merit pay for teachers and restrictions on teacher collective bargaining. Daniels has already signed the restrictions on collective bargaining into law and is expected to sign the other education bills in coming days.

The state is expected to get the most attention for the voucher bill, however. Vouchers are government-issued certificates that can be applied to private tuition, essentially allowing parents to use some of the tax dollars that would normally be sent to public schools at other institutions.

The vouchers themselves do not carry any additional expense for the state because they mainly transfer money between schools. But the bill includes a tax deduction of $1,000 for each child in a private school or home school. That will translate into a revenue loss of more than $3 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Students receiving vouchers make up less than 1 percent of school enrollment nationwide, but vouchers have been one of the top priorities among conservatives. Indiana's program would be limited to just 7,500 students for the first year and 15,000 in the second, a fraction of the state's approximately 1 million students. But within three years, there would be no limit on the number of children who could enroll.

The actual value of the vouchers would be based on a sliding scale and would be less than the amount of tax money a public school would have received for that student. In the case of students in grades 1 through 8, the maximum value would be $4,500.

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  • Schools are not failing kids, parents are
    My child is in what is called a "failing school." The interesting part is that he is not failing...in fact he is above average on everything. He has excellent teachers and a great staff at the school.

    But, the school is failing. Why? Because teachers can only do so much to help a child. Parents have to be willing to take an interest in their child's education. They have to be willing to be good role models.

    Instead, the majority of kids at my child's school are distracted from education by getting in trouble all the time. In addition to the discipline problems, public schools are forced to become larger and larger because they can't afford to operate more schools.

    So, the class sizes are larger, the funding is less, and teachers are expected to teach a class of 30 kids, including those who don't speak English, those who have learning disabilities or special needs, and those who are academically gifted.

    A teacher working in a Carmel school is facing much less challenges than a teacher in an inner city school. Yet, we've passed legislation giving teachers merit increases based on a student's performance. In reality, we may simply be driving teachers to only want to teach in schools that have a priviledged population of students.

    This voucher program seems like smoke and mirrors. And if taxpayer money will now be going to private schools (more than likely Catholic schools), then we should hold those schools under the same rules as public schools (they should be required to accept whomever comes to their door and should be held to state testing standards). That should apply to charter schools as well.

    The proof is in the data. Let's be sure we're looking at it and keeping an eye on it.
  • Deception
    Once again, the Democrats are saying they are concerned about the kids when their real complaint is about "taking" funds from public schools and putting union teachers jobs at risk. So typical.
    I think kids deserve the best education available but the parents have to be involved. Without parental involvement, they are doomed to mediocrity at best. So why don't Democrats want kids to have the best education available? Could it be if kids become capable of independent thought they won't blindly elect Democrats who just want to control their lives and spend other people's money? BINGO!!!
  • Won't matter much
    At least in Indianapolis, I can't see the voucher program having much, if any impact. Why? The opportunity to take an active stance on your child's education has been in place for quite some time via magnet programs and charters. Both magnet and charters have successful programs, and some that aren't, but if you CARED about your child's education and TOOK ACTION, you are probably in a school that is of your choice already.

    Here is the rub: All those who are left were to lazy or apathetic to take the time, effort, to complete a couple forms, visit a couple schools for Charter and Magnet schools...what makes you think they are going to take the time and effort to participate in a voucher program?

    Might there be some who choose to jump from the magnet and charter over to voucher? Perhaps. But that comes with additional effort from parents who have already shown they are willing to take that effort.

    I think people will be surprised with how mediocre the response will be to this voucher program. Nice political feather in the cap. Shocking that it is considered a Republican issue, since the dollar amount credited is more than what a $60k income family pays in state taxes. Awfully generous...
  • tax savings
    I dont know how people can say it takes money away from public schools the voucher for gradeschools is for a max of 4500.00 the indianapolis school system gets 8000.00 or more for each student. If you have many kids from ips go to charter schools how much money can be saved by ips by letting teachers go and the state gets to keep a exta 3500.00 for each student that goes to a charter school. Now what isnt be said is that the Gov. allocated exta money in this budget for schools. I think this is a win win for everyone. Just dont be lied to by people saying that money is being takened away from public schools. The truth is they dont lose anything and should gain. One if a student leaves yes they lose the money for that child but isnt the expenses in a public school much more than a charter school so I am thinking the school systems saves money for each child lost.

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