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Fiscal tug-of-war stalls Indiana voucher expansion

INDIANAPOLIS — The timing would seem perfect for an expansion of school vouchers in Indiana, where the state's high court recently upheld the nation's broadest voucher law and the initiative enjoys broad support in one of the country's most conservative states.

But a plan to make vouchers more widely available to families has met a roadblock: It might be a budget buster. So despite the momentum, lawmakers say they want more time to look at the voucher program approved two years ago.

"I think there's some reform fatigue going on in the Legislature. We've done a lot of heavy lifting in the last few years and there's been a lot of controversy in our hallways," said Republican Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, a voucher supporter. "People are just trying to catch their breath a little bit."

The quandary Indiana finds itself in illustrates the delicate tightrope states are walking as they emerge from the lean years of the recession, where cuts to basic education programs often failed to leave enough money to cover the basics. Now, with the economy improving, states like Indiana and Wisconsin are wrestling with where those dollars should go.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has followed much of the playbook laid out by former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, has proposed freezing public school funds and diverting that money to charter schools and vouchers. But Senate Republicans there have chafed at freezing public school spending.

Indiana's political winds would seem to favor investing more in vouchers following last month's Indiana Supreme Court ruling that the program doesn't violate a state constitutional provision against public funding for religious programs. With the stark exception of former Indiana School Superintendent Tony Bennett, who was upset by a Democratic voucher opponent in November, supporters of the program have won broad victories in the Indiana Legislature. Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers, and new Republican Gov. Mike Pence supports expanding school choice options.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, the Indiana Senate's lead budget writer, says the state needs to look hard at its priorities and focus more on restoring education aid cut under Daniels. Proposals to expand vouchers to higher-income families and lift a current provision that requires students to first spend a year in public school could cost the state an additional $360 million, he estimates.

"The premise of the original deal was if they've been in a public school and it doesn't work for them, then they can move on," he said. Lifting the public school requirement, he said, would be "a supplemental expense on top of whatever we're doing."

Families earning up to roughly $65,000 can qualify for Indiana's school vouchers — one of the highest caps in the nation — but supporters have often said they would like to see universal vouchers, with no limit on how much a family can earn. About 10 percent of the 90,000 students currently enrolled in Indiana private schools receive public money to help cover their tuition. That's below the cap of 15,000 vouchers set this year, but that cap disappears next year.

Indiana lawmakers and public school leaders question whether adding to the state's already expansive voucher program amounts to "abandoning" public schools.

Sen. Tim Skinner, a Terre Haute Democrat and former teacher, said the needs of a few thousand voucher students and Indiana's private schools are trumping those of public school students.

"We've got 1 million kids out there who choose, and their parents choose to keep them in public schools. Are we justified in financially crippling those schools to the point where they have to cut curriculum, they have to cut staff, (and) they're struggling to pay the bills?" Skinner asked.

Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which is supporting voucher measures in statehouses across the nation, said that argument is flawed.

"The bright shiny object the opponents of school choice want you to look at is 'Oh my god, this is going to cost more' or 'This is leading to universal choice,'" he said. "An expansion of vouchers in Indiana is not going to bring a halt to a $6.4 billion (public school) industry every year."

Indiana lawmakers likely won't decide what form voucher expansion will take until the waning hours of the legislative session that ends this month. The Senate approved a watered-down plan Wednesday with a minimal expansion, while House Republican leaders are pushing for more.

Pence, who made expanding school choice a key part of his campaign, acknowledges the effort is struggling but isn't backing down.

"The last time I looked in Indiana, about 185,000 kids attend schools that rank as a 'D' or an 'F' school," he said. "I believe that giving more families and more kids more choices is in the interest of the families of Indiana and is in the interest of improving education in Indiana."

Heather Coffy, 37, of Indianapolis agrees with Pence — to an extent.

Coffy has three children attending Catholic school on vouchers. She pulled her oldest son, Delano, 17, out of Indianapolis Public Schools after watching his grades drop because he wasn't getting enough attention from teachers. At his new school, he has smaller classes and more individual attention, she said.

Coffy said all children should have an opportunity to receive a good education but doesn't "agree with all the way" the proposals that would let anyone receive a voucher.

Jen Stormes, 41, of Indianapolis, said she would like to see additional aid for families already enrolled in the voucher program. She moved her two children to a private Christian school after seeing her 10-year-old son, Braydon, "slipping through the cracks."

Stormes said the additional school bus fees, lunch costs and tuition not covered by the voucher cost her about $700 a month. The program was designed to help lower-income families, but Stormes said she would have no problem if wealthier families qualified for vouchers.

"I think it really depends on what's going on with the child and the child's needs," she said.