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Indiana Supreme Court Keeps School Voucher Program Intact

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UPDATED

Supporters of school choice in Indiana received a major boost today when the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld a school voucher program that affects the state's middle- and low-income families.

Indiana's program includes more families in its eligibility than any other school voucher program in the nation—more than half the state's students qualify—because it covers two socioeconomic levels. In its second year, 9,324 low- and middle-income families are participating. Other states' voucher programs are geared to providing school choice options to low-income students only.

The Indiana Supreme Court "rejected claims that the program violates provisions of the Indiana Constitution regarding education and religion," according to a release issued by Indiana's highest court.

In January 2012, a state Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Choice Scholarship Program—as Indiana's school voucher system is known— and the decision was appealed, according to the Indianapolis Star.

The Indiana State Teachers Association expressed disappointment with the decision, on grounds that the voucher system siphons funding that public schools need to deliver on their mission, according to a report from The Republic in Columbus, Ind. Also upset with the decision is the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a Fishers, Ind.-based organization that opposes vouchers and favors focusing public tax dollars on the K-12 education of public school students.

On the opposite side of the issue, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based organization that calls for "true education reform through school choice," hailed the state supreme court's decision as a positive one.

"Kids and parents won today," Robert Enlow, the foundation's president and CEO said in a statement. "With this announcement, Indiana should move immediately to make this opportunity available to more families, and other states should look at this victory and see that the education establishment's ability to obstruct families' freedom to choose is waning."

Currently, 22 states and Washington, D.C., have some type of private school choice measure, according to the foundation. Voucher programs provide school choice to 104,000 participants in 12 states and the District of Columbia. The statutory voucher program in Indiana had been challenged on the grounds that it primarily benefited schools operated by religious institutions.

"The court emphasized that Indiana's Constitution does not intend to prohibit religious institutions from receiving indirect government services, 'such as fire and police protection, municipal water and sewage service, sidewalks and streets,' but only prohibits expenditures directly benefiting such institutions. The direct beneficiaries of the voucher program are not the schools but those eligible families who are free to select which schools to attend," the court's release indicated.

Beyond today's decision, vouchers could be on the verge of expanding in Indiana, under HB1003, a bill that would extend the voucher program. The Senate Education Committee is expected to vote tomorrow on the bill, which has already passed the House. State PTA President Sharon Wise spoke out against the expansion of the state's voucher system during a March 19 rally on the statehouse steps, in advance of the Senate Education committee's hearing on the subject.

In a telephone interview today, Wise said, "Our stance has not changed. We are against vouchers. We feel that they take public money and move it into the private sector. I realize that the Indiana Supreme Court said that is not what it did [with this decision,] but we believe that is what vouchers do, and that they drain public school systems."

The full, 22-page Indiana Supreme Court opinion is available here.

This post was updated to include comments from a telephone interview with State PTA President Sharon Wise.

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