Indiana panels OK teacher merit pay, voucher bills

Two pieces of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' sweeping education plan, a voucher plan that would direct taxpayer money to private schools and a merit pay bill that links teacher pay to student performance, cleared key legislative hurdles Wednesday.

The GOP-ruled Senate Education Committee voted 7-3 along party lines to advance the voucher bill to the full Senate. The bill would use state money to give scholarships to parents who meet income guidelines and want to move their children from public to private schools. Supporters say the bill would give working-class families more education options, while opponents say the vouchers suck money away from public schools and are an attack on traditional public education.

The bill is the most contentious of Daniels' aggressive education agenda and would make Indiana stand out among states with similar programs. Until now, most voucher programs in the U.S. have been limited to poor students, those in chronically failing schools or those with special needs. Indiana's proposal would be open to a much larger pool of students, offering money to students from middle-class homes and solid school districts.

The proposal would use a sliding scale to determine the amount of scholarships, with families of four making up to about $60,000 a year eligible for some amount of help. The program would be limited at first to 7,500 students the first year and 15,000 the second, but within three years there would be no limits on the number of children who could enroll.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican who supports Daniels' proposals, said every child deserves a high-quality school, regardless of where they live or their family's wealth.

"This bill gives parents a voice, and it gives students a choice," Bennett said in a statement Wednesday.

The money for the vouchers will come from the public schools that the students would have otherwise attended had they not moved to private schools. Critics say vouchers erode public schools by removing students and their funding, and argue they blur the line between church and state.

The Senate Education Committee made several changes to the bill before advancing it with little discussion, including one that would prohibit private schools that participate in the program from discriminating based on race and other factors, and another aimed at allowing religious schools to continue teaching subjects with a religious approach if they choose.

Also Wednesday, the Republican-led House Education Committee voted 8-5 along party lines to advance Daniels' merit pay proposal. That bill requires teachers to be evaluated every year, and those who fall into the lowest two of four evaluation categories wouldn't get automatic pay raises. Local districts would create their own evaluation systems but would have to include objective measures of student achievement such as scores on statewide standardized tests.

Under the bill, which now moves to the full House for consideration, a school district couldn't place a student for more than one year with teachers rated ineffective, the lowest of the four evaluation categories created by the proposal. If school staffing makes it impossible to assign another teacher, schools would have to send a note home with parents letting them know their child will have an ineffective one for a second year in a row.

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