By Brigid Curtis Ayer
INDIANAPOLIS — School choice advocates experienced a major victory under the state capitol dome the final week of March as the Indiana Supreme Court rendered a March 26, landmark, unanimous decision upholding the 2011 choice scholarship law as constitutional. A day later March 27, state lawmakers in the Senate approve House Bill 1003 a proposal to expand the current statewide voucher program.
While HB 1003 has not made final passage, the Indiana Supreme Court removed a potentially major obstacle, the question of constitutionality of the original voucher plan, making expansion this year, and in years to come more possible.
“The court’s decision is great news for families who are currently receiving vouchers and also for families and children who hope to get a voucher in the future,” said Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference executive director. “Once and for all, this decision will put to rest the argument frequently raised by school choice opponents that the school scholarship law is unconstitutional.”
Tebbe said, “We were confident going in, but the strength of the vote, as well as the written decision, just confirms everything we have been saying about the voucher program.”
Every point challenged by the plaintiffs was ruled constitutional, and “you don’t always get that in a case of this magnitude.”
The opinion stated, “We hold that the Indiana school voucher program, the choice scholarship program, is within the legislature’s power … and does not violate … the Indiana Constitution.” The justices also held that the law did not violate religious freedom and the states constitution’s ban on tax funding religious institutions.
“The choice scholarship program is an attempt to even the playing field for low to moderate income families and offers parents’ real choice,” said Tebbe. “It is good public policy and I’m extremely happy with the Supreme Court’s ruling.”
A day after the decision, the Senate Education Committee passes a trimmed back version of the voucher expansion. A member of the panel, State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations committee, offered an amendment to HB 1003 removing portions of the voucher expansion, including the immediate kindergarten access provision. He told the panel members that after looking at the fiscal note prepared by Legislative Services Agency, he became concerned that the kindergarten eligibility provision alone would double the cost each year.
Kenley’s amendment, which passed the panel 12-0, removes kindergarten eligibility requiring income eligible children to first attend a public school for two years. The amendment removes the preschool tax credit scholarship program; removes eligibility for children of military families and foster children.
The school choice expansion now includes access to a voucher for children with special needs and allows siblings of current voucher students to also be eligible to receive a scholarship. Students who are income eligible can receive a voucher as early as kindergarten if their home school had received an F on its state report card. The bill increases the scholarship cap from $4,500 to $4,600 in fiscal year 2013-2014; and from $4,600 to $4,700 in fiscal year 2014-2015.
Gov. Mike Pence in his State of the State address reiterated his commitment and high priority to early childhood education. Early childhood education also was part of his roadmap to Indiana campaign. State Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, author of HB 1003, told lawmakers earlier this year that the preschool scholarship tax credit program, and the voucher expansion to help military families, special needs and foster children were provisions initiated by the governor. With the exception of special needs children, the other priorities of the governor were removed from HB 1003 by the Senate.
“Even though the Senate made significant changes to the expansion,” said Tebbe, “the bill could potentially be changed again,” noting the session wasn’t over yet.
Tebbe explained that the House will have an opportunity to “concur” or “dissent” on the Senate changes. If the House dissents on the Senate changes, HB 1003 will go to a conference committee. This four-member committee will iron-out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Tebbe said if the bill goes to a conference committee, he is hopeful some of the provisions which were taken out in the Senate, could be added back to the bill before the end of the session.
The School Scholarship Act, the largest school voucher program in the country, passed in 2011, allows income eligible families to receive a partial scholarship to use to pay tuition at a nonpublic school of the families’ choice. At last count by the Indiana Department of Education, that number doubled from last year from roughly 3,900 to over 9,000 for the 2012-2013 school year.
According to the national organization which tracks school choice, Alliance for School Choice, this school year, approximately 150,000 children nationwide are benefiting from 16 school choice programs in nine states and the District of Columbia.
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.