Gov. Mitch Daniels has so far been able to count on a solid wall of support for his education agenda from the Republican majority in the Indiana legislature. But the wall may be cracking when it comes to one key element of his agenda: state-funded vouchers to pay for private-school tuition.
Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, raised concerns about House Bill 1003, the voucher legislation, last week. In a letter to all legislators, he worried about using public funds to support religious schools.
If the state can’t favor one religion over another, Steele asked, what’s to prevent vouchers from being used at a radical Muslim madrassa that teaches children to hate Christians and Jews? Or a school affiliated with Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets the funerals of U.S. soldiers with signs that say God hates soldiers because they represent the United States?
“What if you get a school that’s taking vouchers and it’s teaching a particular brand of hate or intolerance? You may never know,” he told School Matters.
Steele also mentioned Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”
“That, to me, means just what it says,” he said.
Steele said he wrote to colleagues because whenever he mentioned his concerns to another Republican lawmaker, the response was the same: “Huh, I never thought of it in that way.”
Probably, like most Hoosiers, they hadn’t thought much about the issue at all. Vouchers are an ideological touchstone to Daniels and some in the Republican elite; they like the idea of an educational marketplace where public and private schools compete for students.
But vouchers aren’t likely to be a high priority for most GOP lawmakers. Many of them represent suburban districts where most parents are satisfied with the public schools. Others represent rural areas where there are few private schools that would want vouchers.
The House Education Committee passed House Bill 1003, the voucher legislation, on an 8-5 party-line vote. House Democrats then decamped to Illinois almost three weeks ago, blaming the voucher measure and other Republican bills dealing with education and labor.
If Speaker Brian Bosma really wants to bring the Democrats back to the Statehouse, taking vouchers off the table could be a good step. Chances are some of his fellow Republicans would thank him.