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Lawsuit Challenges Far-Reaching Indiana Voucher Program

CORRECTED
Opponents of an Indiana law that would create one of the broadest voucher programs in the country are suing to block it from taking effect, arguing that it runs afoul of the state's constitution by channeling public money toward religious purposes.

That legal argument is one of the most oft-cited objections to private school choice programs, a challenge that often hinges on the language included in state constitutions.

The Indiana lawsuit, filed late last month by a group of parents, teachers' union members and other state residents, will be closely watched because it could determine the fate of what is arguably the nation's most ambitious voucher program.

This was one of the busiest legislative sessions in recent memory for voucher programs, with Republican governors and lawmakers supporting the creation and expansion of private school choice programs large and small. Indiana's measure, which was pushed through the GOP-led Indiana legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels, may have been the farthest-reaching of any of those efforts. Children from families with incomes of up to 150 percent of the amount required to qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program are eligible for vouchers. That means some middle-class families would qualify to receive public funding for private school tuition. That's a sharp departure from most traditional voucher programs, which limit the flow of money to children from low-income backgrounds and those with disabilities.

The lawsuit is being supported financially by the Indiana State Teachers Association, though the union is not a plaintiff, said Mark Shoup, a spokesman for the group.

As with similiar legal actions in other states, the plaintiffs claim that the Indiana law violates provisions in their states' constitution that ensure that taxpayers cannot be legally compelled to support religious institutions—in this case, religious schools.

The lawsuit also says that unlike school choice laws in some states, Indiana's law does not contain provisions to prevent partcipating private schools from requiring students to take part in religious training and instruction.

In fact, the voucher program "specifically prohibits the department and other state agenies from regulating the 'religious instruction or activities' of participating private schools," the plaintiffs argue.

Indiana's state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who supported the voucher law, said the state expected a legal fight, and would overcome it.

"During the lengthy public debate in the 2011 legislative session, the opponents made it clear they would challenge the new law," Bennett said in a statement. "We are confident the courts will agree that this new law is both constitutional and in the best interests of Hoosier children."

[CORRECTION: The original version of this post misstated the income eligibility standard for Indiana's voucher program. Students from families with incomes of up to 150 percent of the amount required to qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program are eligible.]

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