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House approves expanded voucher bill

INDIANAPOLIS – More students meeting looser income guidelines would be eligible for state-paid vouchers under a bill approved by House Republicans Thursday that widens the scope of the country’s largest program.

House Bill 1003 passed the chamber by a somewhat narrow vote of 57-36. Several Republicans voted with Democrats against the measure and others were absent. Phil GiaQuinta, northeast Indiana’s lone Democratic House member, was the only local lawmaker in opposition.

“This program has had an impact on families and kids,” Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said. “Nine thousand kids in this state believe they are having a better educational experience.”

He asked his colleagues to give that chance to more Hoosiers kids and parents who might not have the opportunity to choose a private school without the state aid.

But Democrats pointed to how the two-year-old program has drained millions from public school coffers, and some of the kids aren’t leaving failing schools but well-regarded public schools instead.

“The sad part about this is we haven’t stopped to see what the outcome is from the 2011 reform we made,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “It doesn’t matter if the program hasn’t been evaluated. It doesn’t matter what the court says. We’re just going to do it.”

The Indiana Supreme Court is weighing arguments about whether the program is constitutional because many of the participating private schools are religious-based.

The bill makes a number of changes to the program – the largest being that incoming kindergarteners would now be immediately eligible for the program without first attending public school.

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, held up a picture of former Gov. Mitch Daniels and reminded the House that he promised public schools would get the first shot at educating a child.

“If you do a good job they’re not going to want to leave,” she quoted him as saying.

But now that facet of the program is gone.

The bill does not, however, remove the one-year public school requirement for the thousands of kids currently in private school that might otherwise qualify for vouchers. Fiscal leaders removed that provision because of its cost to state coffers. Some parents have chosen to take their kids out of private school for one year and then re-enroll to get the state assistance.

The bill would eliminate the requirement that siblings of current voucher students first attend a public school for a year before becoming eligible. Other changes would lighten income eligibility requirements for children in military and foster families and for special-needs children.

And the bill allows family incomes of students who already have a voucher to rise above the initial limits to about $84,000 a year without losing the voucher.

There are no such provisions for students receiving need-based state scholarship aid for college.

The legislation also sets prescriptive requirements for how fast the Indiana Department of Education must approve voucher applications, and when the enrollment process must begin each year.

The bill now moves to the Senate.

nkelly@jg.net

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