Indiana's expansive school voucher program upheld: A model for others?

Indiana's school voucher program, which extends to middle-income families, does not 'directly benefit religious schools,' the state Supreme Court chief justice writes.

Charlie Nye / The Indianapolis Star / AP
Traditional public school supporters rally in the North Atrium of the Indiana Statehouse on March 19. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the law creating the nation's broadest school voucher program tonight, clearing the way for a possible expansion.

The Indiana Supreme Court Tuesday unanimously upheld the state’s expansive school voucher program, which extends to middle-income families the opportunity to send their children to private schools with public assistance.

A coalition of teachers, parents, and union officials had challenged the voucher program as unconstitutional, saying it uses public money to promote religious education.

But Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote that whether or not the program is “wise educational or public policy,” it is constitutional because the state funds "do not directly benefit religious schools but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children."

The ruling is considered a precedent for other states that say parents should have greater choice in where their children attend school.

“This ruling is a model, or a roadmap, for how to structure a [school voucher law] law that is the most expansive in the nation,” says Terry Spradlin, associate director of education policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington.

The ruling resulted from a 2011 lawsuit that challenged the constitutional merit of redirecting tax dollars from local public school districts to pay partial private school tuition. The Indiana State Teachers Association suggested the program is a backhanded method of funding religious activity, considering that the majority of private schools in Indiana are parochial. It also said it violated the state constitution that ensures uniform public school access.

“There are not many good private school choices outside religiously-affiliated schools in this program. Most parochial schools around the nation are struggling to survive, so parochial school advocates see this [voucher program] as a way to extend their livelihood,” Mr. Spradlin says.

The voucher program was pushed through by former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as part of an education reform initiative that expanded private school access for lower- and middle-income households. Under the new program, a family of four earning less than $42,000 annually can receive up to 90 percent of the maximum state voucher, while the income cap for receiving 50 percent of that aid is $62,000 annually.

The Indiana program “is a little more expansive than more narrow programs that exist around the nation,” such as those in Wisconsin and Ohio, for example, which are limited to students attending public schools in Milwaukee and Cleveland respectively, says Spradlin.

This is the second school year the program is in operation and the number of voucher recipients has jumped 140 percent, to 9,424 students receiving them for this school year, compared with 3,919 the last. The majority of vouchers used are in Indianapolis, where the number of students in the city’s public school system receiving vouchers increased 96 percent, from 644 in the last school year to 1,262 students today.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence praised the court decision, releasing a statement Tuesday that said “parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income” and that the state “must continue to find ways to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families.”

A current bill that passed the state House and is currently up for debate in the Senate would expand the vouchers to kindergarten students. Under current law, students must attend at least two semesters in public schools before becoming eligible for vouchers. 

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