Indiana lawmakers expand reach of school vouchers after court rules that Choice Scholarship Fund is constitutional

Stateline Midwest ~ May 2013

One of the nation’s most extensive state school-voucher initiatives has withstood a constitutional challenge and will be expanded even further as the result of 2013 legislation. 

Signed into law in 2011, Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program allocates state dollars to offset the cost of tuition at private schools. Funding comes from a portion of the per-pupil aid formula for public schools.

Low-income Hoosier families across Indiana are eligible for the scholarships, whereas many other state voucher initiatives tie eligibility to where a student lives — in a particular city, for example, or in a school district designated as failing.

For many years, Wisconsin’s voucher program (which began in 1990) was limited to Milwaukee students. In 2011, lawmakers added the city of Racine to the program. Ohio’s program, which was upheld in 2002 by the U.S. Supreme Court, is for students in Cleveland and low-performing schools; vouchers are also available for Ohio students with disabilities.

The number of students receiving vouchers through Indiana’s program has more than doubled over the past two school years, from just under 4,000 to 9,300.

Under the bill passed this year by the legislature, HB 1003, scholarships will now be available to any low-income student whose local public school has a failing grade on the state’s report card of school performance, regardless of whether that student previously attended a public school.

For most other students, voucher eligibility will still be contingent on them having attended a full year of public school. However, HB 1003 waives this requirement for the siblings of students already attending a private school. Lastly, special-education students will be eligible for vouchers, and their families can have higher income levels than other students’.

Indiana’s per-student funding cap will remain unchanged, with the scholarship being the lesser of three amounts: the tuition and fees charged at an eligible private school; $4,500 for grades one through eight (there is no cap for high schools); or an amount based on per-pupil funding of the student’s school district.

Throughout the voucher debate in Indiana, opponents have said the state should not divert taxpayer dollars and resources from public to private schools. However, on March 26, the state’s Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Choice program, rejecting claims that it violated the Indiana Constitution by using taxpayer money to pay for students to attend religious schools.

The court ruled that the program directly benefits lower-income families, not the schools that scholarship students attend. Students in the program are able to attend public schools or private secular or religious schools.

Challengers of the voucher law also argued that because the program could send more than half of the state’s students to private schools, it violated another provision of the state Constitution that calls for “a general and uniform system of common schools.”

The court ruled, though, that the state fulfills this clause by having a “uniform” public school system “equally open to all” and “without charge.”