INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The timing would seem perfect for an expansion of
school vouchers in Indiana, where the state's high court recently upheld
the nation's broadest voucher law and the initiative enjoys broad support
in one of the country's most conservative states.
But a plan to make vouchers more widely available to families has met a
roadblock: It might be a budget buster. So despite the momentum, lawmakers
say they want more time to look at the voucher program approved two years
"I think there's some reform fatigue going on in the Legislature. We've
done a lot of heavy lifting in the last few years and there's been a lot
of controversy in our hallways," said Republican Indiana Senate President
Pro Tem David Long, a voucher supporter. "People are just trying to catch
their breath a little bit."
The quandary Indiana finds itself in illustrates the delicate tightrope
states are walking as they emerge from the lean years of the recession,
where cuts to basic education programs often failed to leave enough money
to cover the basics. Now, with the economy improving, states like Indiana
and Wisconsin are wrestling with where those dollars should go.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has followed much of the
playbook laid out by former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, has proposed
freezing public school spending at the same time he's putting more money
into charter schools and vouchers. But Senate Republicans there have
chafed at expanding the voucher program while public school spending is
Indiana's political winds would seem to favor investing more in vouchers
following last month's Indiana Supreme Court ruling that the program
doesn't violate a state constitutional provision against public funding
for religious programs. With the stark exception of former Indiana School
Superintendent Tony Bennett, who was upset by a Democratic voucher
opponent in November, supporters of the program have won broad victories
in the Indiana Legislature. Republicans hold a supermajority in both
chambers, and new Republican Gov. Mike Pence supports expanding school
But Sen. Luke Kenley, the Indiana Senate's lead budget writer, says the
state needs to look hard at its priorities and focus more on restoring
education aid cut under Daniels. Proposals to expand vouchers to
higher-income families and lift a current provision that requires students
to first spend a year in public school could cost the state an additional
$360 million, he estimates.
"The premise of the original deal was if they've been in a public school
and it doesn't work for them, then they can move on," he said. Lifting the
public school requirement, he said, would be "a supplemental expense on
top of whatever we're doing."
Families earning up to roughly $65,000 can qualify for Indiana's school
vouchers — one of the highest caps in the nation — but supporters have
often said they would like to see universal vouchers, with no limit on how
much a family can earn. About 10 percent of the 90,000 students currently
enrolled in Indiana private schools receive public money to help cover
their tuition. That's below the cap of 15,000 vouchers set this year, but
that cap disappears next year.
Indiana lawmakers and public school leaders question whether adding to the
state's already expansive voucher program amounts to "abandoning" public
Sen. Tim Skinner, a Terre Haute Democrat and former teacher, said the
needs of a few thousand voucher students and Indiana's private schools are
trumping those of public school students.
"We've got 1 million kids out there who choose, and their parents choose
to keep them in public schools. Are we justified in financially crippling
those schools to the point where they have to cut curriculum, they have to
cut staff, (and) they're struggling to pay the bills?" Skinner asked.
Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational
Choice, which is supporting voucher measures in statehouses across the
nation, said that argument is flawed.
"The bright shiny object the opponents of school choice want you to look
at is 'Oh my god, this is going to cost more' or 'This is leading to
universal choice,'" he said. "An expansion of vouchers in Indiana is not
going to bring a halt to a $6.4 billion (public school) industry every
Indiana lawmakers likely won't decide what form voucher expansion will
take until the waning hours of the legislative session that ends this
month. The Senate approved a watered-down plan Wednesday with a minimal
expansion, while House Republican leaders are pushing for more.
Pence, who made expanding school choice a key part of his campaign,
acknowledges the effort is struggling but isn't backing down.
"The last time I looked in Indiana, about 185,000 kids attend schools that
rank as a 'D' or an 'F' school," he said. "I believe that giving more
families and more kids more choices is in the interest of the families of
Indiana and is in the interest of improving education in Indiana."
Heather Coffy, 37, of Indianapolis agrees with Pence — to an extent.
Coffy has three children attending Catholic school on vouchers. She pulled
her oldest son, Delano, 17, out of Indianapolis Public Schools after
watching his grades drop because he wasn't getting enough attention from
teachers. At his new school, he has smaller classes and more individual
attention, she said.
Coffy said all children should have an opportunity to receive a good
education but doesn't "agree with all the way" the proposals that would
let anyone receive a voucher.
Jen Stormes, 41, of Indianapolis, said she would like to see additional
aid for families already enrolled in the voucher program. She moved her
two children to a private Christian school after seeing her 10-year-old
son, Braydon, "slipping through the cracks."
Stormes said the additional school bus fees, lunch costs and tuition not
covered by the voucher cost her about $700 a month. The program was
designed to help lower-income families, but Stormes said she would have no
problem if wealthier families qualified for vouchers.
"I think it really depends on what's going on with the child and the
child's needs," she said.