Indiana Court Upholds Broadest School Voucher Program
By Brandon Smith and Sean Powers, with additional reporting from The Associated Press
The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the nation's broadest school voucher program, clearing the way for its expansion.
Critics had argued that the program primarily benefited religious institutions that run private schools. But the program's supporters say parents can send their children to any school they want, whether it's public or private, religious or not, and the Supreme Court agreed with that Tuesday.
In a 5-0 decision, the justices said the program does not violate the state constitution.
Writing the 22-page opinion, Chief Justice Brent Dickson stated that the court decided that the program primarily benefited parents, not schools, because it gave parents choice in their children's education.
Dickson also rejected school voucher opponents' claims that the state constitution requires a public school system, saying lawmakers have broad discretion in how children are educated.
"The method and means of fulfilling this duty is thus delegated to the sound legislative discretion of the General Assembly, and . . . it is not for the judiciary to evaluate the prudence of the chosen policy," he wrote.
The Indiana case has been closely watched because its voucher program is open to middle-class families, while most state voucher programs are limited to low-income families or those in failing schools.
The Indiana State Teachers Association sued over the law and said it harmed public schools by diverting money intended for them to the voucher program.
Teresa Meredith, who is the vice president with the teacher’s union official, said she is disappointed that the state Supreme Court upheld the voucher program. She said schools' commitment to education won’t change because of this ruling, but she noted that there will be additional challenges.
“We still have over a million children in public schools in Indiana, and we’re still going to do everything we can in our power, the same kinds of programs and services if at all possible to meet theneeds of those learners,” Meredith said. “Yet we’re going to have to find a way to do it with even less support once the cap comes off the vouchers.”
New Democratic state schools superintendent Glenda Ritz opposes the voucher program. Ritz joined the lawsuit while campaigning last year, but she removed her name from the list of plaintiffs shortly after winning office. She has walked a delicate line in the Statehouse since then, saying she opposes that law but is sworn to uphold it.
"While I have great respect for the court, I am disappointed in today's decision," Ritz said in a statement. "As State Superintendent, I will follow the court's ruling and faithfully administer Indiana's voucher program. However, I personally believe that public dollars should go to public schools, and I encourage Hoosiers to send that message to their representatives in the Statehouse."
There is still some question about how popular the vouchers are in Indiana. Voters in November replaced former Republican Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, the state's most visible supporter of vouchers, with Ritz, a Democrat who opposes the measure. But voters also awarded a supermajority to House Republicans, who have pushed for a sweeping expansion of vouchers this year.
The House passed a voucher expansion bill earlier this session that would do away with the requirement that students spend at least one year in public school before receiving a voucher. The bill is up for a vote in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.
“I just would encourage our legislators and everyone in education to just proceed with caution here that just because this kind of reform has been ok’ed by our Supreme Court justices doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea,” Meredith added.
State Sen. Earline Rogers (D-Gary) said with the debate over legitimacy of the voucher program settled, the legislature needs to deal with the reality that it’s now funding three school systems – public schools, charter schools and private schools through the voucher program.
“I think what we need to do is direct our energies towards getting enough dollars for all students that we have taken on responsibility for,” Rogers said.
Lawmakers who have backed Indiana’s school voucher system say even though a Tuesday state Supreme Court ruling upholds the constitutionality of the program, the judgment will not dramatically expand it.
House Education Committee Chair Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis) authored the original voucher law two years ago. He called Tuesday’s ruling a validation of the work the legislature has done creating and implementing the program. But he said the ruling will not “open up the floodgates” of the state’s voucher system.
“We’ll still have the deliberative process and have a number of issues to discuss and this will no longer be on the table as an issue that people can pose as an argument against it,” Behning said.
Behning also noted that Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling will not have a great impact on the existing voucher program.
“I don’t know that I think this means that all of a sudden we’re going to have vouchers everywhere in Indiana, that it’s going to open up the floodgates or anything,” Behning explained.
State Rep. Kreg Battles (D-Vincennes) said the Supreme Court’s decision shifts the debate over vouchers from trying to halt them entirely to controlling their expansion.
“Make sure there’s absolute transparency in the flow of money and how that money is used,” Battles said. “And I think there also has to be accountability, rigorous accountability, that we hold those private schools to exactly the same standards and the same rigor of accountability that we would hold charters and public schools to.”
Senate Education Committee Chair Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) said Tuesday’s ruling will not cause dramatic expansion of the state’s voucher program. He said practical limits already exist, pointing out the number of voucher recipients did not meet even the caps put in place by the legislature in the program’s first two years. But he said the court’s decision will likely ease the concerns of some families and students.
“Some of the private schools have been hesitant in getting into this until the Supreme Court has made their decision so I think there’ll probably be a few additional private schools maybe offer vouchers this year that have not been offered in the first two years,” he said.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence supports the voucher law and said he has long believed parents should be able to choose a private school for their children regardless of their income. Pence issued a statement following Tuesday's ruling saying that the state should continue to look for ways ``to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families.''
According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, about 530,000 Indiana students qualify for vouchers, and about 9,000 receive them.