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March 20, 2013

Private-school voucher opponents rally at Statehouse

INDIANAPOLIS — Hundreds of people gathered at the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday to rally against a bill that would expand the state’s private-school voucher program, already the largest in the nation.

Chanting “no more vouchers” and carrying signs with such messages as “Don’t use my tax money to teach religion,” opponents of the legislation said growing the voucher program would siphon away millions of dollars from traditional public schools still hurting from past budget cuts.

Indiana PTA president Sharon Wise called the legislation, supported by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, “a massive overstep.”

A Senate committee is scheduled to hear the bill today; the House has already passed a version of the legislation that could significantly expand the number of private- and religious school students eligible for the state-paid vouchers.

A roar of approval from the crowd went up when Vigo County Schools Superintendent Danny Tanoos said lawmakers need to be reminded of last November’s election, when voucher-opponent and school teacher, Glenda Ritz, beat Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, a voucher supporter, in the race for state schools superintendent.  

“Was the message not clear when we sent Tony Bennett packing?” Tanoos said. “Was it not clear when a great teacher, and not a politician, beat him by 100,000 votes?”

The rally took place in the large, open-ceilinged atrium of the Indiana Statehouse as legislators, meeting in session a floor above, could hear the crowd chanting and applauding the rally’s speakers.

It was organized by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, whose members helped launch a social media campaign credited for Ritz’s surprise victory.

Tuesday’s rally was large and loud but it paled in comparison to a Statehouse rally held last week by voucher supporters, who bussed in children from private and parochial schools that accept the state vouchers as tuition payments.  

Pence spoke at that rally, along with several Republican legislative leaders.

The governor supports legislation that would loosen the restrictions on the state’s current voucher program, which provides an average of $4,100 in tuition payments for about 9,100 students from low-income families enrolled in private and parochial schools.

Pence backed a version of the bill that would’ve opened the program up to thousands of more students by waiving the requirement that students attend at least one year of public school before they can apply for a voucher.

The House passed a scaled-back version of the bill that allows kindergarteners and siblings of current voucher students to be eligible for a voucher without having to wait a year.

House Democrats who voted against the bill argued it was fiscally irresponsible to expand the program when it is only in its second year and while a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is awaiting a ruling from the Indiana Supreme Court.

Senate Republicans may rein in the bill for fiscal reasons. State Sen. Luke Kenley, the powerful chairman of the Senate appropriations committee has already said he opposes expanding the program until the state has a better handle on its future costs.  

The House Republican budget bill forecasts spending for the voucher program to grow over the next two years from the current $37 million a year to $63 million annually, with the number of students growing to 15,000 in the 2014-2015 school year.

Those additional dollars would come from the $270 million that House Republicans want to restore to K-12 school funding, which was cut by almost $300 million in the past budget cycle due to the recession. Pence opposes that additional education funding, and instead is pushing for a cut in the state’s income tax rate.

The state Supreme Court is weighing the legality of the program after hearing arguments in November over a lawsuit pressed by the Indiana State Teachers Association that virtually all of the voucher money goes to schools whose primary purpose is to promote the teachings of their affiliated churches.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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