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Voice of the people

The Indiana Supreme Court will decide whether the state voucher law is constitutional. But even if the justices agree the law doesn’t violate a prohibition of public funds benefiting a religious institution, Indiana lawmakers must determine whether the law’s application meets Hoosiers’ approval. That’s the tougher case to prove.

As attorneys for the plaintiffs and state argued their positions on the constitutional challenge Wednesday, a courtroom camera captured state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett looking on, a reminder of the message Indiana voters sent this month in defeating the voucher law’s strongest proponent.

In pushing the legislation two years ago, Bennett painted public schools as failing the poor students trapped within them, an argument that allowed most lawmakers to believe their own district’s schools wouldn’t be affected. In practice, however, vouchers are draining dollars from schools all over the state. Because the legislation did not go before the House Ways and Means Committee, a full airing of its fiscal effect on public schools never happened.

More than $38 million in tax dollars will flow to the private schools this year through 9,324 vouchers, with no limit beginning next fall. Figures released by the Indiana Department of Education the day before the court hearing showed 66 percent of the vouchers were used in urban districts, 18 percent in suburban areas and 16 percent in rural areas.

While 81 percent of the voucher recipients came from families qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch, the income guidelines for Indiana’s program are the most lax in the nation. A family of six can earn as much as $85,942 a year and still qualify.

Parents also can choose to leave a higher-performing school for a failing one. In Allen County, the largest number of vouchers this fall went to Cornerstone College Prep School, which earned an F on the state’s latest school report cards. Fewer than a third of its students passed math and language arts portions of the ISTEP+ last spring. Information on its performance at the high school-level is unknown. No graduation or end-of-course assessment scores for high school students are posted on the state’s accountability website.

Taxpayers paid Cornerstone $536,649 this year, but no enrollment data or information on its teachers’ qualifications or years of experience is available from the state – in direct contrast to the transparency and accountability demanded of public school educators.

While the Supreme Court’s line of questioning seemed to suggest the justices will uphold the law, Justice Robert D. Rucker questioned the state’s attorney about voucher schools’ ability to pick and choose their students, while public schools “must take all comers.”

Solicitor General Thomas Fisher rightly noted there are no data at this point to indicate that’s happening.

But voucher proponents inevitably will face a situation where parents choose to send a child with a severe disability or discipline problem to a private or parochial school unwilling to accept them. Convincing the public that vouchers are lifesavers for struggling students will be a tough sell in those cases.

Ultimately, the fate of the voucher program hinges on whether lawmakers acted ahead of public opinion.

Interestingly, Florida voters this month rejected a constitutional amendment to repeal the state’s ban on spending public dollars for religious funding, chilling the prospects for a similar voucher program there.

Indiana voters never had a chance to weigh in on taxpayer dollars sent to parochial schools. As their neighborhood schools continue to see support drained away, they might send another message to lawmakers.