Bill that would shift Indiana voucher oversight advances

February 19, 2013

Indiana's new Democratic state schools superintendent would no longer oversee the private school voucher program that she has opposed under a proposal approved Tuesday by a Republican-controlled legislative committee.

The House Education Committee voted 7-4 along party lines to endorse the bill that would move the handling of applications for the vouchers and distribution of the money to the state's Office of Management and Budget, which reports to Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

The vote sparked quick criticism from Democrats, who accused Republicans of playing politics with schools superintendent Glenda Ritz. The GOP controls the General Assembly, the governor's office and all other elected executive offices.

"We have one lone Democrat serving in this entire Statehouse and it just happens to be Superintendent Glenda Ritz," said Democratic Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh of Crown Point, who charged the measure challenged Ritz's integrity and capabilities. "This is very political."

The proposal was authored by committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who introduced the bill by citing Ritz's involvement in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program before her election last fall.

"She does not believe public dollars should go to private schools," said Behning, a leading sponsor of the state voucher law adopted in 2011. "She's said that many times, pre-election and postelection."

Committee Democrats and a top aide to Ritz said she hasn't done anything to interfere with the voucher program since she took office Jan. 14.

"We believe that it is an unnecessary taking away of a power of the superintendent at a time when she has not even had the chance, really, to settle into her job," said John Barnes, Ritz's legislative liaison.

Ritz, a former suburban Indianapolis school librarian, won election last year with a grass-roots campaign fueled by teacher anger over education changes Bennett pushed.

She was a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the voucher program but withdrew after she won election. The state Supreme Court heard arguments in that case in late November but hasn't yet ruled.

Behning also questioned why the Department of Education hadn't opened the voucher application period for parents in February as former Republican superintendent Tony Bennett had done.

Leaders of some private schools told the committee that Department of Education's decision to accept voucher applications in February last year helped parents make early decisions on whether to enroll their children.

Holy Cross Central School Principal Ruth Tinsley said about 90 of 210 students received vouchers to attend the Catholic school near downtown Indianapolis.

"Our families will have to wait and are concerned about making that decision now because without the vouchers they would not be able to attend the school," Tinsley said.

Barnes attributed delays to the recent transition in leadership and said the agency hoped to begin accepting voucher applications soon.

Senate education committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said Tuesday he would consider holding a hearing on the voucher oversight proposal if it clears the House. He had previously declined to take action on any Senate bills that would shift responsibilities away from Ritz.

Kruse said he hasn't heard any complaints about how the Education Department is handling the voucher program.

"I think the voucher law should be fully implemented by the Department of Education and they should not stall or hold it up," Kruse said. "If they are stalling, I would not like that."

The state is paying some $37 million to provide voucher to about 9,100 students this school year. The House Republican budget proposal forecasts spending for the voucher program will grow over the next two years to $63 million annually with 15,000 students.

Behning, the House education chairman, said he had questioned whether the Education Department was the proper agency to oversee the voucher program when it was adopted two years ago and wasn't sure the Office of Management and Budget would end up handling the process.

"I really would rather create an independent group and create a structure that may have more independence," he said. "That's just where it is today."


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