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.
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.”
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.
“I feel like we’re jumping off the fiscal cliff,” said Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, before joining other Democrats who voted against the bill. Skinner was among several who noted the Legislative Services Agency said the cost of the proposed Choice Scholarship expansion was indeterminable but could be significant.
Skinner said the expansion of vouchers for a few thousand students will come at the expense of more than 1 million public school students. He urged Republicans to look at the lack of reliable cost estimates from a viewpoint of fiscal conservatism.
Before moving HB 1003, the committee passed an amendment authorizing a study committee on vouchers and increasing the amount of money guaranteed to schools that accept Choice Scholarships in the next two years. Vouchers provide $4,500 per student, but the bill as amended increases funding by $100 annually for the next two school years.
Estimated costs of the proposed voucher expansion varied wildly, ranging from $7 million to $200 million. Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said moving the bill with so little knowledge of the impact showed “a lack of respect for what Hoosiers want.”
But voucher advocates said the program expansion will improve schools and educational choice and argued that savings in the expense of educating voucher recipients are reinvested in public education.
Ethan Birch of Fort Wayne testified, even as he is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Birch said his son, Keithan, 11, receives a choice scholarship and is thriving at Lutheran South Unity in Fort Wayne. Birch said he and his son are cancer survivors, and he testified that even though the family has to pay a portion of Keithan’s school bill, vouchers make it possible.
“I still want to provide the very best for my children,” Birch said.
Supporters of public education said uncertain costs and impact are concerning.
“Should we possibly just stop a moment to evaluate where we are?” asked Randy Borror, a former lawmaker now with Bose Public Affairs Group who lobbies for Fort Wayne Community Schools, the largest public school district in the state.
Borror said 12 percent of all students receiving vouchers are in the Fort Wayne district, and that 53 percent are from the 10 largest districts in Indiana. “It’s enormous for those top 10,” he said.
Joel Hand, general counsel and lobbyist for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said vouchers were presented to the public as introducing competition and saving taxpayer dollars. He noted about 60 percent of vouchers are received by Catholic schools, amounting to an annual subsidy of about $22 million, and asked, “Is this really about competition, or is this about a bailout for these private, religious schools?”•