Politics prevail as Indiana House passes school voucher bill

The Indiana House passed the controversial school voucher bill on Wednesday, just two days after a report from Wisconsin threw cold water on the claim that vouchers will improve educational opportunities for students.

The House voted 56-42, mostly along party lines, for the measure, House Bill 1003. Three Republicans — Tom Saunders, Phil Hinkle and Wendy McNamara – joined 39 Democrats in voting no. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it may face a more skeptical and less partisan reception.

The Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice hailed the House vote, saying the bill, if passed into law, would create “the nation’s broadest voucher program, allowing low- and middle-income families to use taxpayer funds to send their children to the private school of their choice.”

While most voucher programs in the U.S. are targeted to urban areas, failing schools and poor children, the Indiana bill would give state money to any low- and middle-income parents who transfer their children to private schools, including religious schools. Families would be eligible if their income is up to 150 percent of the cutoff for reduced-price school lunches – about $62,000 for a family of four.

The bill limits the number of vouchers to 7,500 in 2011-12 and 15,000 in 2012-13. It requires private schools that accept vouchers to take part in state accountability and teacher-evaluation programs.

House Democrats tried to moderate the bill with dozens of amendments, but Republicans shot them down, one after another. This was on Tuesday, the same day the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that students in Milwaukee’s long-established voucher program performed no better on state tests than their peers in Milwaukee Public Schools.

“The scores released by the state Department of Public Instruction cast a shadow on the overall quality of the 21-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which was intended to improve results for poor city children in failing public schools by allowing them to attend higher-performing private schools with publicly funded vouchers,” write Erin Richards and Amy Hetzner of the Journal Sentinel.

You can argue with a straight face that much of the Mitch Daniels-Tony Bennett educational agenda, such as new teacher evaluations, limits on collective bargaining and even an expansion of charter schools, could help students. But the voucher bill is something else.

As Joel Hand, executive director of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, points out, the bill would “take up to $61 million away from public schools over the next two years and give it to private schools.” And while private schools that accept vouchers would be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race or religion, they could set admission standards that bar struggling students and tuition levels that effectively close the door on truly low-income families.

This is arguably a bill that’s about politics and not education. It does three things: 1) bails out private schools, especially Catholic schools, that stand to keep losing enrollment with the expansion of charter schools; 2) pays off the free-market ideologues who bankrolled House Republican candidates last year; and 3) pays back the public school teachers’ unions for supporting Democrats.

Maybe a bit more Hoosier common sense will prevail in the Senate.

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