Legislature to look at expanding voucher program

Indiana lawmakers will look at expanding what is already the nation's largest school voucher program when the General Assembly gets to work Monday despite concerns that the program is hurting public schools in big cities.

The changes being considered include increasing the amount of aid for younger students and ending a requirement that students attend public school for a year before they are eligible, both of which could put more students in the voucher pipeline.

The Legislature is looking at expanding vouchers even as Indiana Supreme Court justices are weighing the legality of the program that provides public money to low- to moderate-income families so their children can attend private schools. Opponents argued before the court in November that the vouchers primarily benefit the religious institutions that run private schools. The state argued the vouchers allow parents to send their children to private schools they otherwise couldn't afford.

Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence has said he would push forward with changes to Indiana's education system started under Gov. Mitch Daniels. The state's new superintendent of public instruction, Democrat Glenda Ritz, opposes vouchers, but House Education Chairman Bob Behning and others say there is little she can do other than to slow how information about the voucher program is released.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said he believes vouchers are hurting big-city school districts. He wants the General Assembly to see what effect the program is having on public schools before moving ahead with more changes.

"We certainly don't need any more changes, because we've forgotten that for every action there's an opposite and equal reaction. With so many changes being made in a short period of time, we haven't stopped to analyze what the repercussions of these changes are," he said.

Supporters of the voucher program say it's allowed thousands of families to make the right educational choices for their families without cost being a deterrent. More than 9,000 students are receiving vouchers this year.

"I've met with a lot of families that have tearfully expressed their thanks for the opportunity they never thought they'd have, and that is to have multiple options for their child's education, including public ones, and make the decision of what's right for their families based on their needs," House Speaker Brian Bosma said.

Behning, R-Indianapolis, hopes to expand that with a bill that would remove the $4,500 cap the current state law places on the amount of money students in grades two through eight can receive under the program. He wants to change it so it is similar to the rules for high school students, where vouchers can cover up to 90 percent of tuition, depending on a family's income. The change is necessary, he said, to cover the true costs of the schools.

Robert Enlow, president of The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said lifting the cap would lead existing private schools to expand their facilities and bring new private schools into the state.

"You've got to get to a point where new schools can be developed, and $4,500 just doesn't do it. It provides scholarships for 9,300 needy families, and that's really important and we need to continue that, but we also have to be looking at new high-quality schools," he said.

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, called the idea of using public funds to pay to build private schools "crazy."

"It doesn't surprise me that there would be that kind of attempt. But to use public money to build private schools and then use more public money to send students to those private schools, come on," he said. "I think that is really stretching it."

Behning said when the Legislature passed the bill allowing vouchers, lawmakers estimated about 22,000 seats were available in private schools. The state could approach that number if participation in the voucher program more than doubles again in the next school year, when there is no limit on the number of vouchers the state can issue.

"We could be pushing already the capacity, although I know some institutions are adding on or looking at expansion," he said. "I think that will be the next question is availability. Will we continue to have availability? But that's a good problem to have."

Behning said lawmakers also are expected to consider ending a requirement that a student attend a public school for one year before seeking a voucher to attend a private school. But concerns about the cost of that change could affect its chances.

Smith said such a change doesn't make fiscal sense.

"Then we start taking our education dollar and start funding people who already are paying for their own private education of their children," Smith said.

Smith said he would prefer to see the state have mandatory full-day kindergarten before it expands school vouchers to kindergarten.

Behning said he also would like to see a law that would only require one means test for a student's family. That would prevent students whose parents are near the income threshold for receiving vouchers from yo-yoing in and out of private school depending on income from the previous year.

"Once a child is eligible, they should always be eligible," he said.

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