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Voucher program stands, Indiana Supreme Court rules

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Indiana’s school voucher program, considered the nation’s widest-reaching, is constitutional, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday.

“We hold that the Indiana school voucher program, the Choice Scholarship Program, is within the Legislature’s power under Article 8, Section 1, and that the enacted program does not violate either Section 4 or Section 6 of Article 1 of the Indiana Constitution,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote for the court.

Twelve Indiana residents including educators, clergy and parents of children in public and private schools filed the lawsuit in July 2011, challenging the Choice Scholarship Program. The ruling on direct appeal in Teresa Meredith, et al. v. Mike Pence, et al., 49S00-1203-PL-172, affirms a Marion Superior Court grant of summary judgment to defendants.

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.”

The Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs’ claims that the voucher program violates liberties in the state Constitution regarding education and religion. The court emphasized that Indiana’s Constitution does not intend to prohibit religious institutions from receiving indirect government services, “such as fire and police protection, municipal water and sewage service, sidewalks and streets,” but only prohibits funding directly benefiting such institutions.

Justices 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.

Indiana follows Wisconsin’s Supreme Court in upholding some of the most ambitious and far-reaching voucher programs in the nation. Florida’s Supreme Court threw out a similar voucher proposal. Dickson noted that state’s Supreme Court ruled vouchers violated the Florida Constitution by “devoting the state’s resources to the education of children within [Florida] through means other than a system of free public schools.” The “free public schools” language is expressed in Florida’s Constitution, while Indiana requires the Legislature to “provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools.”

Justices didn’t accept plaintiff arguments that the program could ultimately result in 60 percent of schoolchildren attending private schools, and that would violate the provision for a uniform system of common schools.

“Even if we were to apply the plaintiffs’ 60% hypothesis and assume that the families of all such program-eligible students utilize the program, so long as a ‘uniform’ public school system, ‘equally open to all’ and ‘without charge,’ is maintained, the General Assembly has fulfilled the duty imposed by the Education Clause,” Dickson wrote.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement, “The Indiana Supreme Court found that the Legislature, in creating a voluntary program to broaden educational alternatives for Hoosier children, followed the Indiana Constitution by leaving the decision whether and where to use a scholarship to qualifying students and their families.

“My office defended the statute that the people’s elected representatives in the Legislature passed; and now that the question is decided, families can make informed decisions about using vouchers,” Zoeller said.

The court in December heard oral arguments under the original case title that named then-Gov. Mitch Daniels as defendant. When the case was filed, Glenda Ritz was among the plaintiffs, but as a result of her election as superintendent of public instruction in November, she became a defendant by statute, as did Pence.

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.

The voucher case was high-stakes for both supporters and opponents.

“Indiana has become something of a leader with choice-based experiments,” Notre Dame Law School professor Rick Garnett, an expert in the area of education reform, told IL in December. “If the court were to pull the plug on this experiment, not only would a lot of kids be in a tricky spot, Indiana’s leadership position would kind of be undermined.”

But Sheila Suess Kennedy, professor of law and public policy at the IUPUI School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in December that whether schoolchildren or parents are inconvenienced misses the point.

“If you allow people to thumb their nose at a constitutional premise on the theory that when it comes to court you won’t be able to unscramble the egg, that’s an unfortunate precedent to set,” said Kennedy, who is listed as a plaintiff in the case but said she’s not actively participated.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a statement that the ruling “only heightens the need for the Indiana General Assembly to scrutinize the fiscal impact of expanding vouchers and study what oversight measures are necessary to protect taxpayer investment.

“I would join the growing chorus of others in the belief that the impact the voucher program has on every Hoosier child’s ability to obtain a high-quality education deserves a thorough study. … To not give this issue careful consideration would be reckless.”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that the ruling supports high quality educational opportunities for state children, whether in public or private schools.

“The state’s school choice voucher program puts us on course to achieve that,” the chamber said.

In a pair of 5-4 opinions, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 upheld an Arizona tax-credit voucher system and in 2002 affirmed an Ohio system granting vouchers to certain Cleveland students.



 

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