Voucher foes fall short

The bad news for Indiana supporters of public education is that the state Senate voted Wednesday to expand the state’s already generous school voucher program.

The good news: At least the vote was close.

Ten Republicans joined all 13 Democrats in the Senate to vote against House Bill 1003. The tally was 27-23. Bucking party leadership and standing with public schools were GOP Sens. Sue Landske, Jim Tomes, John Waterman, Vaneta Becker, Ronnie Alting, Ed Charbonneau, Susan Glick, Randy Head, Ryan Mishler and Ron Grooms.

Indiana gives private-school tuition vouchers to students whose families make up to 277 percent of the federal poverty level: $65,000 for a family of four. Until now, students have had to spend at least a year in a public or charter school to qualify. The bill passed by the Senate would lift that requirement for:

// Students who live in the attendance area of a school that gets an F on the state’s grading system.
// Siblings of students who currently receive vouchers.
// Students in special education. (And in their case, the income limit is 370 percent of the poverty level: $87,000 for a family of four).

Leaving aside questions about the appropriateness of handing over taxpayer money to unaccountable private schools – almost all of which are religious schools – the bill raises serious questions. How much will it cost? There’s no way to know how many more students will qualify for vouchers, or how many will take advantage. Legislative Services Agency analysts basically throw up their hands.

“The increase in eligible children due to these changes is indeterminable, but could be significant,” they say in the fiscal impact statement for the bill.

Other questions pertain to just who will qualify for vouchers. What, exactly, does it mean to live in an attendance area for an F school? The idea of students being “trapped” in a “failing” school because of where they live makes little sense in an era when urban districts are dotted with magnet and charter schools. And what are the rules for an area where, for example, the middle school gets an F and the high school gets a C. Does a student lose her voucher when she reaches ninth grade?

What’s next for legislators?

The version of HB 1003 approved by the House was even more generous than the Senate bill. In keeping with the wishes of Gov. Mike Pence, it granted vouchers to children of military personnel, veterans and foster parents, without regard to family income. So Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s House sponsor, will have to decide whether to concur with the Senate amendments or take the bill to a conference committee.

Given the way the tide seems to have turned against expanding vouchers, he may be wise to take what he’s got and run with it.

What’s next for voucher opponents?

Groups like the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education pulled out the stops on this one, engaging in a furious calling and letter-writing campaign to stop the bill. Wednesday’s Senate vote may have been their best shot.

But if Behning agrees with the Senate changes, the bill will go back to the full House for a concurrence vote – one more chance to lobby. And if he doesn’t and the bill goes to a conference committee, the resulting measure will have to be approved by both the House and Senate.

While 23 no votes represented progress, some of the pro-voucher votes were disappointing. Sen. Luke Kenley, the voice of reason on many issues this session, expressed serious reservations about the voucher bill in the Senate Education Committee. But he voted for the expansion. So did Republican moderates like Tom Wyss and Joe Zakas and conservative but maverick lawmaker Brent Steele.

And Sen. Brent Waltz, the Republican who was endorsed by the Indiana State Teachers Association last fall over Democrat Mary Ann Sullivan — remember how ISTA President Nate Schnellenberger said Waltz and the union had a “meeting of the minds,” and the Republican had been “helpful to us in the legislative process”?

Waltz voted to expand vouchers.

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