Voucher lawsuit headed to Indiana Supreme Court

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed last week to take up the lawsuit over Indiana’s voucher law, which provides public funding for students who attend private schools.

That should be welcome news for everyone, whether we support or oppose vouchers. At last the state’s highest court will decide what the state constitution means when it says that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

The voucher law, arguably the most radical in the country, provides state funding for low- and middle-income parents who transfer their kids from public to private schools. Families are eligible if they make up to 277 percent of the federal poverty level — that’s about $75,000 for a family of five, for example. Taxpayers are spending $16.2 million this year on vouchers.

The lawsuit, Meredith v. Daniels, was organized and supported by the Indiana State Teachers Association. But the plaintiffs include parents, teachers, school officials and clergy members, and the effort is supported by groups ranging from the Indiana School Boards Association to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Marion Superior Court Judge Michael D. Keele ruled last August that the voucher program doesn’t violate the constitution. He reasoned, in part, that it’s OK for state money to be given to religious institutions as long as parents, not the state, decide which institutions get the money.

Of the 250 private schools that are receiving vouchers this year, all but a half dozen or so are religious schools. Most are Catholic schools. Many are evangelical Christian schools, some of which teach a mix of fundamentalism, far-right politics and anti-government extremism. At least one is a Muslim school.

Of all the controversial reforms adopted in the 2011 Indiana legislative session, the voucher bill was the most bitterly partisan. It’s an interesting coincidence that the Indiana Supreme Court will consider this case as the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the partisan dispute over President Obama’s health-care law.

Lawsuit challenging Indiana voucher program to proceed despite setback

Good for the Indiana State Teachers Association and the plaintiffs in Meredith v. Daniels for deciding to continue their legal challenge to the Indiana private-school voucher program.

The ISTA announced Friday that it would go forward with the lawsuit despite Marion Superior Court Judge Michael D. Keele’s denial of an injunction that would have blocked the program from taking effect.

“This week’s ruling was only the very beginning of the litigation in this case,” said ISTA vice president Teresa Meredith, a Shelbyville teacher. “It’s important to Indiana and its public schools that we continue to pursue this challenge, and we will pursue it before the trial court and higher levels of the court system.”

The plaintiffs, who include teachers, parents, and clergymen, may or may not prevail. But at least we will find out whether Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution means what it says: that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

Keele, in a thorough and clearly written decision, denied the request for an injunction because, he said, the plaintiffs didn’t provide evidence that they were likely to prevail on the merits of the case. He said the voucher program doesn’t provide money directly for religious institutions – parochial schools – because the vouchers go to parents, who decide where to spend the money for tuition.

But as the ISTA points out, the claim that vouchers give parents a choice about their children’s education is bogus when 97 percent of schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools.

As Scott Elliott reported in the Indianapolis Star, all 45 Marion County private schools that signed up for vouchers are religious schools; about three-fourths are Catholic schools. That’s pretty much the pattern across the state – except that Gary, one of the state’s largest cities and home to some of its lowest-performing public schools, has only two voucher schools: a Christian academy and a Seventh-Day Adventist elementary school.

Of the more than 250 schools statewide that will accept vouchers, maybe a half-dozen are not religious institutions. And some of those charge tuition that is far beyond what a low-income family can pay, even with the help of a $4,500 state voucher.

In Indianapolis the choices are St. Barnabas, St. Christopher, St. Pius X, St. Philip Neri, etc. … To paraphrase a well-known conservative, that’s not a choice, it’s an echo.