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Voucher Program Should Expand in Indiana, Says Gov. Pence

Indiana's voucher program should expand in its third year, according to new Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, specifically through eliminating the one-year waiting period requirement in which applicants must spend at least a year in a public schools after kindergarten before seeking the voucher, the Associated Press reported Feb. 6.

In reporting on the state superintendent's race in Indiana as well as other aspects of state politics last year, it wasn't exactly clear to me how the Republican governor, a former congressman, would carry on the very prominent K-12 policy legacy left to him by outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels, now the president of Indiana's Purdue University. (As it turned out, Pence would also have to pick up the torch for ousted superintendent Tony Bennett, who is now Florida's education commissioner, after losing his re-election bid.) Pence didn't seem particularly vocal about K-12 issues on the campaign trail against Democrat John Gregg last year, and the AP seems to hit on this theme by pointing out that Pence didn't specifically say that he wanted to eliminate the one-year waiting requirement for vouchers (although he been "broadly" supportive of vouchers).

Now, however, Pence has staked out clear ground in terms of the direction of Indiana's public school system.

Pence's policy honcho, Marilee Springer, informed House education committee members in the state legislature about Pence's wishes on Feb. 5. One could argue that there's a simple mathematical explanation for what Pence wants—the voucher program is growing in popularity. About two weeks after Bennett's defeat to Democrat Glenda Ritz, the Indiana education department reported that 9,324 families participated in the voucher program in the 2012-13 academic year. In 2011-12, by contrast, the first year the voucher program went into effect, 3,919 families participated, making it (according to the Indiana department) the largest first-year voucher program in the nation by enrollment.

You may not be surprised to learn that there is a bill in the Indiana House addressing voucher expansion. The legislation, from Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican, would not just eliminate the one-year waiting period for students. It would roughly double the maximum income permitted for families to be eligible for vouchers. Right now, for a family of four, the ceiling for income is $64,000 annually, but under the proposed bill, that would leap up to roughly $127,000.

The state department last November said that 81 percent of families participating in the voucher program in 2012-13 come from Indiana's "most impoverished" households. That percentage may drop if Behning's proposal ultimately receives Pence's signature, as wealthier families jump on board to receive the vouchers.

There is a perspective related to the Common Core State Standards here. If the number of eligible students and families expand, the number of private schools in Indiana could expand as well. That would mean, however, that more private schools would have to administer common-core-aligned tests beginning in 2014-15, as a condition of accepting voucher money from the state, and therefore change their curricula and instruction to meet the common core. Some common core skeptics in Indiana, like the private-school parent I spoke to for this week's story in the print edition, could find that distasteful, since in their eyes it would be an infringement on true "choice" for parents in terms of education.

Remember, lawmakers in the Indiana state Senate are considering a bill to withdraw from the common core altogether. To the extent there is an overlap between voucher supporters and those who don't like the common core, that group won't be truly happy with any expanded voucher program until Indiana sheds the common core.

Finally, there's Ritz to consider. She was a party to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program, until she won the superintendent's job and subsequently withdrew from the suit. But that doesn't mean she's suddenly a pro-voucher convert. How will she react if Behning's bill get's traction (which, given the GOP control of both chambers in the legislature, it easily could)? Her relationship with the Republican leadership in the state hasn't been pure fire and bile, however—in January, Ritz approved of Pence's decision to direct the labor relations board that oversees teacher contract negotiations to report to his office, not Ritz's. Previously, Daniels directed that the board report to Bennett, but Ritz said she thought the change was the right move.

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