February 25, 2011

House Education panel approves school choice bill

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

School choice is one step closer to becoming a reality in Indiana.

Following hours of testimony, the Indiana House Education Committee approved the school choice bill on Feb. 15. Under the proposal, qualifying families would be eligible for a scholarship to use at the private school of their choice. The private school of choice may, in many cases, be a Catholic school. The Church supports the bill.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the author of House Bill 1003, said, “We would create a scholarship system for eligible parents to choose the private school of their choice. This is only open to children currently enrolled public schools because we are looking at students who have the most serious need of education options. (Related: If House Bill 1003 passes, who is eligible for the school choice bill?)

“The savings of the program would be plowed back into the school funding formula, and be distributed to public schools throughout the state,” he said.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett testified in support of the legislation. He told committee members that the 2011 comprehensive education reform plan places a significant emphasis on “meeting the needs of children.”

“I use the phrase ‘meets the needs of children’ because today we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift,” Bennett said. “I sincerely believe the shift is one from where the state funds schools and school corporations to one where the state provides resources so that children are prepared for the 21st-century economy, and one where parents have the opportunity to choose where their children go to school.”

Bennett recalled a situation where a student could not be served in the public school system, and he had to recommend to the parents that their child attend a private school.

“School choice is the civil rights issue of our generation—and parents deserve that right to choose what’s best for their children,” he said.

Annette “Mickey” Lentz, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, testified in support of the bill. A parent and grandmother, Lentz’s service in education spans nearly 50 years—including working as a teacher, principal and superintendent in non-public schools.

“Time and time again, I have witnessed during my career that good education is a springboard for lifting children up and moving them forward,” Lentz said. “House Bill 1003 gives us that opportunity. It will help parents and their children, and thereby the state of Indiana. We want to help our parents get the best possible education for their children where ever that may be.

“You have a great opportunity this year to give parents the freedom to decide what is best for their children,” she added. “We stand ready to help the children throughout the state to be prepared in this fast-changing world.”

Helen Day of Indianapolis, a mother of six children, also testified in support of the bill.

“My family has seen the benefit that school choice can offer, and I believe more families should be able to choose this option,” Day said. “We appreciate the religious values and quality education of Cardinal Ritter [Jr./Sr. High School] and Holy Angels [School]. We hope our daughter will be able to return to Holy Angels because she is not being served at her current township public school. This legislation would enable us to do this.

“One of my greatest moments as a mother was when my son called me from college to tell me how much he appreciated my choice and sacrifice to send him to a Catholic school.”

Sherlynn Pillow, the principal of Holy Angels School in Indianapolis, testified in support of the bill.

“This school … has 103 students. Ninety-nine percent are not Catholic, and 88 percent are on free and reduced lunch,” she said. “We are committed to serving all students despite academic or socioeconomic background. We believe [school] choice is the right thing to do.”

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, a member of the House Education Committee, expressed a constitutional concern with the bill.

Peter Rusthoven, a partner at the Indianapolis law firm of Barnes and Thornburg, explained how the nation’s highest court viewed the constitutionality of school vouchers in one case.

Citing a 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case made it clear that vouchers did not violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution often talked about as the separation of Church and state, the attorney said.

“The battle over the constitutionality of vouchers is over,” Rusthoven said. He explained that the reasoning behind the court’s ruling was that the money was going to support education. The dollars were being supplied to the parents, and the choice of where to use those dollars was a private choice by the parents, he said.

Rusthoven also said that it is clear that, given prior rulings by the Indiana Supreme Court, voucher programs are not a violation of Indiana’s Constitution.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

Local site Links: