April 5, 2013

School voucher expansion passes Indiana Senate panel

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

School choice advocates experienced a major victory under the state capitol dome during the final week of March as the Indiana Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision on March 26 upholding the 2011 choice scholarship law as constitutional. (See related story)

A day later, state lawmakers in the Senate approved House Bill 1003—a proposal to expand the current statewide voucher program.

While House Bill 1003 has not met final passage, the Indiana Supreme Court removed a potentially major obstacle—the question of constitutionality of the original voucher plan, making expansion this year, and in years to come, more possible.

A day after the court decision, the Senate Education Committee passed a trimmed back version of the voucher expansion. A member of the panel, State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations committee, offered an amendment to House Bill 1003 that removed portions of the voucher expansion, including the immediate kindergarten access provision.

He told the panel members that after looking at the fiscal note prepared by Legislative Services Agency, he became concerned that the kindergarten eligibility provision alone would double the cost each year.

Kenley’s amendment, which passed the panel by a 12-0 vote, removes kindergarten eligibility requiring income-eligible children to first attend a public school for two years. The amendment removes the preschool tax credit scholarship program, and removes eligibility for children of military families and foster children.

School choice expansion now includes access to a voucher for children with special needs and allows siblings of current voucher students to also be eligible to receive a scholarship. Students who are income eligible can receive a voucher as early as kindergarten if their home school received an “F” on its state report card. The bill increases the scholarship cap from $4,500 to $4,600 in fiscal year 2013-14, and from $4,600 to $4,700 in fiscal year 2014-15.

Gov. Mike Pence, in his State of the State address, reiterated his commitment and high priority to early childhood education. Early childhood education also was part of his “Roadmap to Indiana” campaign.

State Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, author of House Bill 1003, told lawmakers earlier this year that the preschool scholarship tax credit program and the voucher expansion to help military families, special needs children and foster children were provisions initiated by the governor. With the exception of special needs children, the other priorities of the governor were removed from House Bill 1003 by the Senate.

“Even though the Senate made significant changes to the expansion, the bill could potentially be changed again,” said Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) executive director, noting the session wasn’t over yet.

Tebbe explained that the House will have an opportunity to “concur” or “dissent” on the Senate changes. If the House dissents on the Senate changes, House Bill 1003 will go to a conference committee. This four-member committee will iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Tebbe said if the bill goes to a conference committee, he is hopeful some of the provisions which were taken out in the Senate could be added back to the bill before the end of the session.

The School Scholarship Act, the largest school voucher program in the country, passed in 2011, allows income eligible families to receive a partial scholarship to use to pay tuition at a nonpublic school of the families’ choice. At last count by the Indiana Department of Education, that number doubled from roughly 3,900 last year to more than 9,000 for the 2012-13 school year.

According to the Alliance for School Choice, the national organization which tracks school choice, approximately 150,000 children nationwide are benefiting from 16 school choice programs in nine states and the District of Columbia this academic year.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information on pending legislation the Church is following, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

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