School voucher surprise

Indiana Republican legislators dropped a surprise Monday. They are proposing to increase state funding for some students who receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools.

They want to add a new category of voucher, bridging the gap between low-income families that qualify for “full vouchers” and middle-income families that get “half vouchers.”

Currently, students who qualify by family income for free or reduced-price school lunches qualify for a voucher worth 90 percent of state per-pupil funding received by their local public school district.

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Legislators OK with discrimination

Indiana House Republicans lined up four-square in favor of discrimination last week. They rejected a proposal to prohibit private schools that receive state funding from discriminating against students and staff because of disability, sexual orientation or gender identification.

The House voted 62-33 against the proposal, offered by Rep. Dan Forestal as an amendment to House Bill 1641, which deals with charter school issues. Sixty-two Republicans voted against it. Voting in favor were 32 Democrats and one brave Republican, Rep. Sean Eberhart of Shelbyville.

The proposal was sparked by controversy over Indianapolis Roncalli High School’s suspension of longtime counselor Shelly Fitzgerald after school officials discovered she was married to a woman. Roncalli has been receiving about $1.5 million per year in voucher funding. Indiana spent $154 million last year on tuition vouchers for private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools.

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Lawmaker tries again to protect student journalists

Will the third time be the charm for legislation to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists in Indiana? It’s a long shot, but we can hope.

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, has again introduced a bill to prohibit school officials from censoring student publications produced under the guidance of teachers who serve as media advisers. The measure almost became law two years ago, but opponents managed to block it.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle this year, probably the most uphill it’s been in three years,” said Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and a supporter of the bill.

The legislation, House Bill 1213, calls for school corporations and charter schools to adopt policies to protect the rights of student journalists. It says high school and middle school officials can’t block the production and distribution of student media unless it’s libelous, illegal or would disrupt school activity.

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Republican support for early-childhood education lacks specifics

It’s good news that Indiana House Republicans mentioned early-childhood education when they unveiled their 2013 legislative priorities this week – but not such good news that they provided absolutely no details about what they plan to do about it.

In fact, when Speaker Brian Bosma was questioned about how the caucus would pay to promote more access to preschool, he apparently segued into an argument for expanding Indiana’s school voucher program, which is already one of the most generous in the country.

“He recounted a meeting with a group of low-income families who had ‘very tearfully’ explained how they had scraped together funds to pay for private school only to find that blocked them from getting a voucher,” the Indianapolis Star reported. “‘Unless they send their child back to the classroom that failed them in the first place, they have no opportunity to access what other Hoosiers are accessing through our voucher program,’ Bosma said. ‘Perhaps it’s time to take a look at that.’”

So instead of talking seriously about expanding access to high-quality early-childhood education, we’re looking at turning taxpayer funding for private and religious education into an entitlement?

OK, let’s cut the speaker some slack and assume he wants to do … something. Continue reading

Republicans’ shifting rationale for vouchers

It’s a rare treat when a public official directs journalists to a document that proves what he is saying isn’t true. So … thank you, Speaker Brian Bosma.

The topic, once again, is school vouchers. Last week, the Republican-controlled House voted largely on party lines for a bill that would provide taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for low- and middle-income parents who transfer their children from any public school to a private school.

House Democrats tried to amend the bill to limit the vouchers to students transferring out of schools that receive a D or F on Indiana’s school-rating system. Wasn’t the point of the voucher idea to help students escape “failing” schools, they asked?

But Republicans rejected the amendment. Pressed by reporters after the vote, Bosma, R-Indianapolis, insisted GOP support for vouchers had always been about “giving parents choice,” not about getting kids out of ineffective schools.

“No one in the Republican caucus has said this (was about failing schools),” Bosma said, according to the Indianapolis Star. He urged reporters to look at the House Republicans’ “Strengthening Indiana” plan. “It says nothing about failing or successful schools there,” he said, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It’s about empowering parents with additional choices.”

Of course, the reporters looked at the plan, which is linked from Bosma’s own website. And the only language in the plan that could be a reference to vouchers is this pledge:

“Provide Children who Attend Failing Schools Grants to Attend a School of Choice” (italics added).

The voucher bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday afternoon before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.