INDIANAPOLIS - The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the law creating the nation's broadest school voucher program, clearing the way for a possible expansion.
In a 5-0 vote, the justices rejected claims that the law primarily benefited religious institutions that run private schools and accepted arguments that it gave families choice and allowed parents to determine where the money went.
"As a preliminary matter, we emphasize that the issues before this Court do not include the public policy merits of the school voucher program. Whether the Indiana program is wise, educational or public policy is not a consideration germane to the narrow issues of Indiana constitutional law that are before us. Our individual policy preferences are not relevant. In the absence of a constitutional violation, the desirability and efficacy of school choice are matters to be resolved through the political process," Chief Justice Brent Dickson said.
Gov. Mike Pence was delighted with the ruling.
"I truly believe that it's important that we continue to expand educational opportunities to Indiana's families and that parents oughta be able to choose whatever public school, public charger school or private school that they chose to attend, regardless of their incomes," Pence said.
Plaintiffs were disappointed by the decision but indicated they would fight on in the legislature.
Teresa Meredith, Indiana State Teachers Association vice president and a plaintiff in the case released a statement in reaction to the court's decision.
"Obviously, we're extremely disappointed in the decision because we have a much different philosophy about the use of public money on vouchers for private schools," Meredith said. "The vast majority of the 9,000 Indiana students receiving taxpayer-supported vouchers attend religious schools. As a public educator, I still believe that funneling public money into religious institutions is a clear violation of the Indiana Constitution."
"It's really a win for every Hoosier who believes that competition will lead to strong public, private and charter schools," said House Speaker Brian Bosma.
"I think we're going to have to demand accountability and transparency, the same kind of rigor that we expect of all schools," said Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes.
State Superintendent of Indiana Glenda Ritz voiced her disappointment with the court ruling.
"As the state superintendent, I will follow the court's ruling and faithfully administer Indiana's voucher program. However, I personally believe that public dollars should go to public schools, and I encourage Hoosiers to send that message to their representatives in the Statehouse," Ritz said.
The Indiana case has received national attention because the program has wide eligibility. Middle-class families are allowed to participate in Indiana, while in most states, such programs are limited to low-income families or those in failing schools. Jeff Reed, spokesman for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said 530,000 Indiana students qualify for vouchers.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the nation's largest in terms of actual enrollment. That program, enacted in 1990, had 24,027 participants this school year, Reed said. The Indiana program has 9,000 students actually enrolled.
Indiana lawmakers have been looking this year to expand their program further, introducing a bill to waive a requirement that students attend at least one year of public school before becoming eligible for a voucher. Kindergartners, siblings of current voucher students and some others would become immediately eligible.
The Indiana State Teachers Association had filed suit over the program, saying it drained money from public schools. Its attorney, John West, told the court in November that virtually all of the voucher money goes to schools whose primary purpose is to promote the teachings of their affiliated churches.
Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, defending the law, said parents were free to send their children to any school they wished, public or private, religious or not. State attorneys also said the teachers union was asking the court to evaluate schools based on how religious they were, which was itself unconstitutional.
School voucher programs have strong support from conservative Republicans, who say they offer families more choices and will boost education by giving public schools greater incentive to improve. Critics contend the vouchers could cripple public schools by diverting desperately needed funds.
The Republican-backed bill expanding Indiana's program is awaiting action in the state Senate, where there have been concerns about its cost and whether the Legislature should start making exceptions to the 2011 compromise that then-Gov. Mitch Daniels touted as giving public schools a chance to win over students and parents.
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