In a major victory for the school-choice movement, Indiana's highest court on Tuesday unanimously upheld a sweeping, ambitious school voucher program put in place in 2011 by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican.
Opponents of the program, which offers families up to $4,500 to send their children to schools outside the public system, argued that it unfairly funneled taxpayer money to religious institutions.
But in a 5-0 decision, the Indiana Supreme Court said that any government assistance to parochial schools is incidental, and that families and children are the true beneficiaries.
"The parents of an eligible student are thus free to select any program-
eligible school or none at all. The voucher program does not alter the makeup or availability of Indiana public or charter schools," the justices wrote in their opinion.
They added that churches and other religious institutions receive other indirect government help in the form of fire and police protection and municipal water service. The vouchers, the justices said, do not directly benefit religious schools and are therefore constitutional.
Voucher critics, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, still believe the program is a poor use of state funds and one that diverts dollars from cash-strapped public districts.
"Just because the Indiana Supreme Court said it's OK by our constitution doesn't mean this is a good idea," Teresa Meredith, vice president of the teachers association, told Reuters. "I don't believe it's a wise use of public money. It's still, at the end of the day, funding religious instruction" with taxpayers' money.
The Indiana decision marks the end of another battle in the ongoing national debate over vouchers.
In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has taken his school- choice program to the Supreme Court after it was declared unconstitutional by a lower court judge last year. Legal battles over vouchers also are unfolding in Colorado and other states.
Across the nation, tens of thousands of students take advantage of the programs, often aimed at low-income families or those that live in failing school districts.
But what sets Indiana's program apart from others is its scope. It's not limited to just poor families or those with children in subpar public schools.
Under the system, one of the biggest political victories for Mr. Daniels during his eight years as governor, middle-class families are eligible to apply for vouchers. It's also offered statewide, even if a family lives in an area with a quality public school.
Following Tuesday's decision, current Republican Gov. Mike Pence is expected to push to expand the program.
"I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income," he said in a statement. "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."
While there's movement at the state level, attempts by Republicans to pass national voucher legislation have failed, and the Obama administration remains deeply opposed to the idea. Most recently, Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rand Paul of Kentucky put forth an amendment to the Senate budget bill that would have freed up some federal money for vouchers.
The amendment was defeated by a vote of 69-30.
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