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February 6, 2013

Pence backs voucher program expansion

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence officially threw his support Tuesday behind a major expansion of Indiana’s school voucher program that goes well beyond what he campaigned for last year by calling for more vouchers in limited cases.

Pence policy director Marilee Springer told members of the House education committee that the governor supports a sweeping package of education changes that would end a one-year waiting period to obtain the scholarships.

“The governor has consistently stated there’s nothing that ales public education that can’t be cured by giving teachers more freedom to teach and giving the parents more choices in the education of their children,” Springer said.

State law currently requires that students spend at least a year in a public school before qualifying for vouchers to ensure low-income families in failing schools benefit the most. The voucher program provides state aid so students in low- and middle-income families can attend private schools.

Pence hinted at support for the sweeping voucher measure in his State of the State address but said during the campaign he would like to end an income cap for military and foster families and special needs children.

Tuesday’s hearing replayed many of the old arguments which contributed to a five-week walkout by Democrats in 2011. Republican supporters, including House Education Chairman Robert Behning of Indianapolis, argued that more choice is necessary to improve education, and Democrats such as Rep. Vernon Smith of Gary said the measure would continue to drain resources from public schools.

The bill’s chances remain unclear in the Senate, where Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has said the proposal violates an agreement with voucher supporters that vouchers would be limited to low-income families and not serve as a subsidy for wealthy families whose children already attend private schools.

The House measure goes well beyond supporting low-income families, seeking limited vouchers for families who earn 3 times the limit for qualifying for the federal free and reduced lunch program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture set the cap for a family of four at $42,643 last year.

Joel Hand, executive director of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, pointed out that last provision would qualify families who earn roughly $128,000 for vouchers.

“(The bill) further undermines public education in our state,” he said. “All it does is expedite the drain of students and funding from public schools.”

The House measure also includes proposal to fund private pre-school programs by matching donations made to independent groups which distribute pre-school vouchers. But most of the roughly three hours of testimony Tuesday focused on the voucher program.

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