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Indiana school voucher fight moves to high court

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A sweeping debate over the nation’s largest school voucher program, which contributed to the ouster of an official widely regarded as a national champion of conservative education policy, moves Wednesday from the ballot box to an Indiana courtroom.

Opponents led by Indiana’s teachers union are asking the Indiana Supreme Court to overturn a local judge’s ruling earlier this year upholding the 2011 law, which was a centerpiece of a conservative education overhaul pushed by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. A hearing is set for Wednesday morning, though there is no timeline for a decision.

The Indiana voucher program is the biggest test yet of an idea sought for years by conservative Republicans, who say it offers families more choices and gives public schools greater incentive to improve.

Unlike voucher programs in other states that are limited to poor families and failing school districts, the Indiana subsidies are open to a much broader range of people, including parents with a household income up to nearly $64,000 for a family of four. Families that take part in the School Choice Scholarship Program can have up to 90 percent of their tuition costs covered.

State education officials said Tuesday the program has doubled in size from its first year, with more than 9,000 students now participating.

“We believe the program is constitutional and in the best interest of students,” said state Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron.

Opponents, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, disagree, saying 99 percent of the schools receiving vouchers are religious schools and that taxpayers shouldn’t be funding schools whose main purpose is promoting their church’s beliefs. The union also says the program funnels tax funds from public education into private schools in violation of the intent of the lawmakers who wrote the state constitution.

Supporters argue that the state isn’t directly funding religious schools — parents who receive vouchers are choosing where to send their kids. They also say that barring religious schools from receiving vouchers would require Indiana to violate its constitution by setting limits on the amount of faith participating schools are allowed to teach their students.

Jennifer Bruggen, 39, and Dan Bruggen, 42, of Indianapolis, hope the Supreme Court upholds the law.

The couple visited the Statehouse on Tuesday with their daughter Hanna, 12, who received a voucher to attend Cardinal Ritter High School on the city’s west side.

The Bruggens said they both attended large schools and appreciated the smaller class sizes Hanna has now compared with when she attended Indianapolis public schools.

“That opportunity for a smaller class environment helps out with what we feel is a better education for our children,” Dan Bruggen said.

The plaintiffs in the voucher case include Indianapolis school librarian Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett in the Nov. 6 election after campaigning against the voucher program and other policies she claimed undermined public education.

Ritz told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she would drop out of the legal challenge after Wednesday’s hearing and before she takes office in January.

Ritz said she believes the voucher program is unconstitutional but said she has a duty to follow state law as the new schools superintendent.

“I have a responsibility to uphold the law. I don’t intend to not uphold the law,” she said.

Ritz said she would have no power to modify or repeal the program as state superintendent.

“That’s up to voters,” she said.

 

Posted 11/21/2012