Senate OKs most expansive voucher plan in nation

The Indiana Senate has approved a plan to create the nation's most expansive school voucher program.

The Republican-ruled Senate voted 28-22 Thursday to advance the bill, which is the most contentious part of Gov. Mitch Daniels' extensive education agenda. The bill allows parents to use some of the tax dollars that would normally be sent to public schools at private schools instead.

Families of four making up to about $60,000 a year would qualify. The program would be limited to a fraction of the state's students — just 7,500 for the first year and 15,000 in the second — a fraction of the state's approximately 1 million students.

Supporters say the program, which now returns to the Republican-ruled House for consideration of recent changes to the bill, would give families more education options.

"A great education should not be an option available only to a privileged few but rather a fundamental right for all Americans," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said in a statement.

But opponents said vouchers will siphon money away from public schools, which saw their funding cut last year.

"At a time when we have cut funding for our public schools, we are now embarking on a program that will take money from our public schools," said Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansviille.

Republicans around the country are pushing to expand voucher programs after the GOP made big gains in the 2010 elections. But Indiana's proposal differs from existing programs.

Other systems across the country are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools. Indiana's program would be open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools. 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.

The proposal was a large part of the boycott earlier this session by House Democrats, who came back after winning concessions on the voucher bill and other legislation.

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, according to the Legislative Services Agency. That will cost more than $3 million in revenue loss, according to the Legislative Services Agency.

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