Indiana Legislature Adopts Sweeping Voucher Plan, Despite Protests

Bowing to the agenda of Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Indiana legislature has approved a sweeping package of education subsidies that benefit religious and other private schools, as well as homeschoolers.

The House of Representatives voted 55-43 April 27 to approve the scheme. H.B.1003 had previously passed the state Senate. It broadly funds religious and other private schools through vouchers and a system of tax credits. Aid would also be available for parents taking part in homeschooling.

Public school supporters and advocates of church-state separation lobbied to block the measure. But they were unable to overcome Daniels’ high-pressure tactics and the influence of a tide of ultra-conservative legislators who were swept into office in November. A coordinated lobbying campaign by richly funded national pro-voucher groups also played a part.

“[Daniels] says that his motivation is to improve student achievement, but so many of these reform measures are not aimed at improving student achievement,” said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “He wouldn’t be siphoning public money from public schools if he was concerned about those students who remain at public schools.”

Daniels pitched the plan as a way to help low-income families, but its largess goes far beyond that. Under the plan, a family of four with an income of $60,000 would still qualify for vouchers.

Americans United activists in the state worked to persuade lawmakers to vote against the plan. Leona Balek, president of AU’s Indiana Chapter, alerted AU members in the state so they could contact legislators. In addition, Balek published letters to the editor criticizing the plan in the Indianapolis Star and other state newspapers.

While many private school advocates lauded the move, supporters of public education were dismayed.

“This could be very huge for all Christian schools,” Tim Cummings, pastor of New Creations Chapel, which sponsors a school, told the Richmond Palladium-Item. “It’s an opportunity to have more children receive a Christian education. A lot of parents want to put their children in our facility. This opens the door for that.”

But Harmon Baldwin, former Vigo County school superintendent, told the Terre Haute Tribune Star that he believes the Daniels agenda “has the potential to destroy public schools” in Indiana.

“Neither do I accept that [public schools] are as bad as some like Daniels claim they are,” Baldwin said. “It’s part of a state and national movement to make significant changes in public schools as we know it. We have done a lot of things that I think have the potential to destroy public schools as they have been.”

It’s unclear what residents of the Hoosier State think about the proposal. Shortly before the vote, a pro-voucher group released a poll purporting to show widespread support for vouchers. But opponents charged that the question was worded to get that result. They said the poll really showed that most Indiana residents are not familiar with vouchers.

Meanwhile, vouchers continue to advance in Pennsylvania after a temporary halt.

Gov. Tom Corbett has been promoting a voucher plan that could cost as much as $1 billion. Some lawmakers balked at the cost, leading Corbett and his backers to pull the measure for tweaking.

Under the new scheme, vouchers would be phased in over a longer period, first being offered to low-income students in “failing” public schools and then expanded to any low-income family in the state. The cost of the plan would be capped to three percent of the previous year’s state education spending, reported WDUQ Radio.

In New Jersey, a voucher proposal backed by Gov. Chris Christie cleared the Senate Economic Growth Committee last month. But the measure, once considered a shoo-in, may face difficulties in the state Assembly.

Some Democrats have expressed concerns about the bill’s price tag, coming at a time when Christie has proposed slashing $800 million from the public school budget. They also say the program, aimed at 13 school districts, is too large.

“There are mixed feelings,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver told the Newark Star-Ledger. “There are a lot of opponents who support ideologically the concept of public education, and they feel this is the beginning step of the erosion of public education.”