Indiana News

State Supreme Court Considers School Vouchers

No timeline for a decision on program used by more than 9,000 students to attend private school

11/21/2012

The waiting has begun, as the Indiana Supreme Court considers whether Indiana's school voucher program is legal.

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The five justices heard roughly 1 1/2 hours of oral arguments on whether the state constitution allows taxpayer money to fund vouchers that pay for religious or other private schools. Chief Justice Brent Dickson gave no indication on when they would rule. "We will attempt to resolve the matter, and we'll let you know when we do."

The program allows parents who qualify to use a state voucher to help pay tuition at any of 289 private schools approved for the program by the Indiana Department of Education. The participating schools must be accredited, administer state assessments and be graded on an A-to-F scale just like traditional public schools and public charter schools. Most of the participating schools have religious affiliations, and the Indiana State Teachers Association says the program illegally diverts public money toward religious purposes.

Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele upheld the law in January, ruling that vouchers were not a direct transfer of tax revenue to religious institutions because it gave parents the choice of how to use the voucher. Keele wrote that the state constitution clearly authorized "educational options outside of the public school system."

John West, the attorney for the teacher's union, argued that vouchers "directly fund activities of a religious nature." He says even though they are described as scholarships to parents, the money goes directly from the state to the private schools.. If those schools are parochial schools, West argues that is government funding of religion.

Solicitor General Tom Fisher argued for the state, and says vouchers are actually an extension of an idea that has existed for some time - the funding of educational choices. He says a scholarship to a K-12 school is no different than a state-funded college scholarship that a student uses to attend a religious college like Notre Dame or Anderson.

One voucher opponent says those pushing for vouchers make specious arguments. Mark GiaQuinta, the president of the Fort Wayne Community School Board, says it's if you said that you deserved a voucher for a country club membership because taxpayers were funding a municipal golf course. Though most of its schools did well in the state's A-F grading system, Fort Wayne schools have lost more students to vouchers than any other school district in the state.

Though the voucher program and other reforms may have helped cost him re-election, State School Superintendent Tony Bennett stands by the voucher program as the right thing to do. Bennett says it may be the most socially just law the General Assembly has ever passed. Bennett's Education Department released final voucher numbers for this school year on Tuesday, which show that 81-percent of vouchers went to poor families, while 48-percent went to minorities.

@WIBC_RaySteele

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