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Election? What election?

If you're among the thousands of Indiana voters who attempted to send a message about public education last November, take note: It didn't register.

When former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican lawmakers said that education "reform" would continue, they weren't kidding. Superintendent Glenda Ritz's election hasn't represented much more than a speed bump for House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning. His committee on Thursday voted 9-3 for a $47 million expansion of school vouchers.

Never mind that no data yet exists to justify expanding the nation's largest voucher program. Never mind that the original intent of allowing students an escape from failing schools was the goal. Never mind that any pretense of restricting the program to low-income families has been eliminated.

Republicans hold super-majority status in both chambers. Behning and others are determined to use their authority to full effect. House Bill 1003 will be placed before the full House on second and third readings as soon as next week.

Parents of public school parents have an additional reason to be angry about the bill. It will triple the amount of tax deduction available to parents who send their children to private school or those who home-school. Parents of public school students are not eligible for any state tax break, although they are required to pay hundreds of dollars in textbook fees each year. Unlike other states, Indiana does not provide free textbooks for public schools.

The bill raises the cap on vouchers from $4,500 to $5,500 in the first year; to $6,500 the following year. Those "savings" that lawmakers claimed resulted from sending students to private school? Gone.

The bill also makes special education students now enrolled in private school eligible for a voucher, without first attending a public school. It also allows the sibling of current voucher students to receive a voucher without first attending public school.

Any lawmaker who supported the voucher bill two years ago as a limited effort to increase school choice was duped; the legislation was a first, small step in privatizing education and tearing down public education.

The $47 million estimated cost for the voucher expansion is new state money, going primarily to private-school parents, observes Vic Smith, a public education advocate.

"When Gov. Pence announced a 1 percent increase for education in his budget, the actual figure came to about $70 million," Smith writes. "It looks now that Gov. Pence may have intended about two-thirds of that increase to go to private schools rather than to public schools."

Is this what Indiana voters intended last November? Is this what legislative leaders like David Long, Brian Bosma and Luke Kenley are willing to allow?

Or, will they give Indiana voters credit for having longer memories than Bob Behning and the newly elected governor suggest?

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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