INDIANAPOLIS -- Thousands of low- and middle-income parents in Indiana could soon be sending their children to private schools with public dollars.
A panel of state representatives approved a bill Wednesday that would make vouchers available for those students to leave public schools and attend private schools instead. The proposal in House Bill 1003 is a key part of the wide-ranging education reform that Republicans are moving in this year's General Assembly.
Democrats opposed it.
Many public school teachers and administrators spoke against the measure Wednesday, saying vouchers will divert more money from public schools, which have already had their state funding cut by $300 million during the economic downturn.
They also questioned the constitutionality of allowing people to use tax dollars to attend religious schools and whether private schools will accept children with disabilities and special needs.
"What makes the American education system so great," Concord High School Principal Dan Cunningham said, "is that American education, Indiana education, public education opens the door for anyone who wants to walk across the threshold."
Cunningham added that the education reform movement seems to be based on the "false premise" that public education is failing. He said most traditional public schools have improved their graduation rates and test scores during the past 20 years.
"We urge legislators to look beyond the rhetoric," he said.
Rep. Robert Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who authored H.B. 1003, said the voucher proposal is not an indictment of public schools and teachers, but there are some children in the public school system who could be served better in a private school.
Behning said vouchers would empower parents who can't afford to pay tuition or move to a better school district. He also pointed out that tax-funded grants have been available for generations to students who attend private colleges.
Luke Messer, a school-choice lobbyist and former state representative, said a voucher program won't be "a silver bullet" for every problem in Indiana schools. "But it could be a silver bullet for a family that gets an opportunity because of this bill," he said.
The "choice scholarships" described in H.B. 1003 would be available beginning in the 2012-13 academic year.
Students from households with incomes at or below the federally determined threshold for reduced-price school lunch would be eligible to receive vouchers worth 90 percent of what the state spends to send them to their local public schools. Children in households where income is as much as twice that threshold amount would receive vouchers worth half of what the state spends to send them to public schools.
For a family of four, the income threshold to qualify for reduced-price lunch is $40,793. That means children in a family that earns up to $81,586 per year could still qualify for second-tier vouchers.
Voucher values would be capped at $4,500 for students in first through eighth grades. There would be no cap for high school students.
Private schools in Indiana currently have about 20,000 spots available for new students. There are about 1 million students in the state's public schools.
Staff writer Kevin Allen: