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Vouchers validated, program scope at issue

April 10, 2013

School-choice vouchers are constitutional, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled recently, but even opponents found cover in the unanimous opinion upholding the nation’s most expansive program.

“Even though the state Supreme Court said … (vouchers are) constitutional, they said it’s not a ruling on the merits of vouchers,” said Teresa Meredith, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.
 

Meredith-Teresa.jpg Meredith

Indeed, justices made that position clear on Page 1 of the landmark 22-page ruling. “Whether the Indiana program is wise educational or public policy is not a consideration germane to the narrow issues of Indiana constitutional law that are before us,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote. “Our individual policy preferences are not relevant. In the absence of a constitutional violation, the desirability and efficacy of school choice are matters to be resolved through the political process.”

Meredith said her takeaway from the ruling mirrors what she might tell her public elementary school students in Shelbyville: “Just because the law says you can do something or some document says it’s OK doesn’t mean you should or that it’s good practice.

“Indiana voters believe in their public schools,” she said. “For the most part, they’re pretty happy with them.”

That’s been the message supporters of public education have taken to the Statehouse and to the court of public opinion in an effort to block expansion of the school Choice Scholarship Program since the justices’ March 26 decision in Teresa Meredith, et al. v. Mike Pence, et al., 49S00-1203-PL-172.

Meredith was among a dozen teachers, clergy and parents of students in public and private schools who sued in July 2011. The Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs’ claims that the voucher program violates liberties in the state Constitution regarding education and religion.

Justices also rejected plaintiff arguments that voucher programs provide direct funding to religious activities in many schools that accept vouchers. “We disagree because the principal actors and direct beneficiaries under the voucher program are neither the State nor program-eligible schools, but lower-income Indiana families with school-age children,” Dickson wrote.

Gov. Mike Pence hailed the ruling. “I welcome the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Indiana’s school choice program. I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income. Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has unanimously upheld this important program, we must continue to find ways to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families.”


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House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the ruling “is clearly a victory for the 9,400 low-income students whose families have selected a school of choice through Indiana’s education scholarship program. It is also a victory for every Hoosier that supports school choice as a means of making every traditional public, private and charter school compete to give the very best education to their students.

“We will continue the fight to make Indiana’s public, private and charter schools the very best in the nation,” Bosma said.

ISTA, which provided attorneys who argued the case before the justices, hasn’t formally decided whether there might be an avenue to challenge vouchers in federal court, Meredith said, but she believes it’s unlikely. “I’m not sure we’re going to pursue that at this time,” she said.

School-choice programs have been upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States. In 5-4 opinions, justices in 2011 upheld an Arizona tax-credit voucher system and in 2002 affirmed an Ohio system granting vouchers to certain Cleveland students.

Shortly after the Indiana Supreme Court’s voucher opinion came down, proponents at the Statehouse used momentum from the decision to advance a proposal to expand vouchers. House Bill 1003 moved to the full Senate, but not before opponents said the unknown costs and impacts on public school funding amounted to a fiscal cliff for the state and a bailout of private religious schools. There are also questions about the veracity of the A through F school-grading system used to identify failing schools where students are eligible for vouchers.

Voucher opponents cited momentum of their own, pointing to the 2012 Hoosier Survey by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University that shows a 6-percentage-point drop in support for expanding vouchers in just one year. The Bowen Center reported that support for expanding vouchers stands at 28 percent, with 31 percent opposing expansion. The largest number of respondents had no opinion.

The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee voted 8-4 to advance the bill on April 2, but several Republican backers acknowledged reservations. At least one said before moving the bill that he reserved the right to vote against it in the full Senate.

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