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Court upholds Indiana school vouchers

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Supreme Court voted 5-0 Tuesday to uphold the state's extensive state-paid voucher program for private school education.

"We hold that the Indiana school voucher program … is within the legislature's power," the court ruled.

The ruling began by noting the court is making no judgment on the public policy merits of the program.

"Whether the Indiana program is wise educational or public policy is not a consideration germane to the narrow issues of Indiana constitutional law that are before us. Our individual policy preferences are not relevant. In the absence of a constitutional violation, the desirability and efficacy of school choice are matters to be resolved through the political process."

The court heard the case in November. At the time, the key question was whether the program directly benefits religious institutions or is just an incidental advantage of educational choice.

The justices ruled "The principal actors and direct beneficiaries under the voucher program are neither the State nor program-eligible schools, but lower-income Indiana families with school-age children."

Legislators passed the voucher law in 2011. It is the most expansive program in the country because its income guidelines are wide and students from all schools – not just failing schools – are eligible. A family of four, for instance, can make up to $62,000 and still qualify for tuition assistance.

This year, more than 9,000 students received vouchers, sending $37 million in tax dollars to private institutions.

Lawmakers are currently considering expanding the program even further.

"I welcome the Indiana Supreme Court's decision to uphold Indiana's school choice program," said Gov. Mike Pence after Tuesday's ruling. "I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income. Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has unanimously upheld this important program, we must continue to find ways to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families."

The Indiana State Teachers Association and a host of plaintiffs filed suit against the program a few months after its passage. They claim it will drain resources from public schools and that tax money should not be used to support religious education.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, originally was a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, and expressed her disappointment after the ruling:

“While I have great respect for the court, I am disappointed in today’s decision. As State Superintendent, I will follow the court’s ruling and faithfully administer Indiana’s voucher program. However, I personally believe that public dollars should go to public schools, and I encourage Hoosiers to send that message to their representatives in the Statehouse.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that state vouchers for parochial students don't violate the U.S. Constitution. But the ISTA lawsuit is based on the Indiana Constitution, which has different language.

The Indiana Constitution says "no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution."

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