Indiana’s voucher program—the largest in the nation—has attracted more than 2,800 students and 250 private schools this fall, despite a pending legal challenge and obstacles to the application process.
Many schools the state department of education has approved for vouchers are affiliated with religious institutions, sparking a legal challenge. Led by the Indiana State Teachers Association, claimants say vouchers violate the Indiana Constitution’s directive for “general and uniform system of Common Schools” and may wrongfully send state money to support religion.
An Indiana judge refused to temporarily block the program on Aug. 15 as litigation moves forward this fall.
“We are confident the courts will uphold the program’s constitutionality,” said Alex Damron, press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education.
The vouchers are worth up to $4,500 for private-school tuition for children from families at up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line—$61,000 for a family of four. To be eligible, a student must have attended a public school for the past year or be entering kindergarten or first grade.
Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) signed House Bill 1003 in May. It caps program participation at 7,500 and 15,000 for the next two school years, consecutively, and removes the caps after that.
Temporary Implementation Hurdles
Delays and numerous changes made to the bill during the stormy legislative session impeded the state Department of Education in implementing the law over the summer. DOE released voucher application guidelines in July, not long before schools were set to reopen for fall.
“We’re focused on implementing these new initiatives so that parents and students may take advantage of the opportunities they provide,” Damron said.
Although progress in reaching parents with information about the program has been “limited,” said Tony Bennett, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, he said he is “encouraged by the amount of outreach the individual schools have done.”
Advocates who helped pass the most expansive voucher legislation in the nation expect fast and furious growth in numbers, interest, and knowledge as parents hear about the opportunities.
“As the word gets out about what a voucher can do for a child, that kind of talk usually catches on like wildfire,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations at the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Hiner projects the program’s unusually wide eligibility range “would cover about 55 percent of Indiana’s total public school population in grades 1-12, which is about 525,000 students.”
Supreme Court Unfriendly to Legal Objections
Opponents claim vouchers violate the First Amendment by potentially sending money to religious schools, but past U.S. Supreme Court decisions have ruled otherwise, Hiner notes. The Zelman decision in 2002 upheld the constitutionality of the city of Cleveland’s voucher program, and the court’s Winn decision earlier this year threw out a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against Arizona’s tuition tax credit plan.
“In both cases, the U.S. Supreme Court was clear—unequivocally so— that when a parent chooses where their children attend school, that choice is a private, protected choice,” she said.
Demand Will Be ‘Tremendous’
Unlike most voucher programs, which are limited to low-income households, learning-disabled children, or those in schools designated as failing, the Indiana School Scholarship Act opens the frontier of school choice to middle-class families. While lower-income families will be eligible for larger vouchers, families earning as much as $62,000 can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.
“I’m quite certain that in a few years, when [it] is a wide-open program, there will be a tremendous demand for it,” Hiner said.
Schools and education providers have already responded to the expected increase in demand.
“There have been inquiries from school providers looking at Indiana and interested in coming to the state; we’ll see who actually comes here,” Hiner said. “Indiana, as we predicted also is becoming the place that people want to go, as this message gets out in the business community that this state is making those bold initiatives to raise the quality of education and the achievement of their children.”