- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels on Thursday signed into law a plan giving Indiana the nation’s most sweeping private school voucher program.

Lawmakers and supporters joined Mr. Daniels at a Statehouse ceremony during which he signed the voucher bill and another proposal aimed at expanding charter schools, which are public schools free of many state regulations. Mr. Daniels and other bill supporters say the proposals will give parents more choices for educating their children.

The voucher program uses taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private and religious schools. The plan is based on a sliding income scale, with families of four making more than $60,000 qualifying for some level of scholarship if they switch from public to private schools.

Critics say the proposal blurs the line between separation of church and state and spreads scarce education money too thin. The voucher proposal was a key reason behind a five-week boycott of the Legislature by House Democrats, who returned to the Statehouse from Illinois only after winning concessions on the voucher bill and other proposals.

Republicans around the country are pushing to expand voucher programs after the GOP made big gains in the 2010 elections, but Indiana’s proposal differs from existing programs.

Other voucher systems across the country are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools.

Indiana’s program would be open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools. Indiana’s program will be limited to 7,500 students for the first year and 15,000 in the second, a fraction of the state’s about 1 million students. But within three years, there will be no limit on the number of children who could enroll.

The education proposals enacted into law Thursday are a major part of Mr. Daniels’ aggressive education agenda. The GOP-ruled General Assembly approved all of the governor’s proposals, handing him big legislative victories as he considers whether to run for president.

The vouchers themselves do not carry any additional expense for the state because they mainly transfer money between schools. The actual value of the vouchers is based on a sliding scale and is less than the amount of tax money a public school would have received for that student. In the case of students in grades 1 through 8, the maximum value would be $4,500.

But the bill includes a tax deduction of $1,000 for each child in a private school or home school. That will translate into a revenue loss of more than $3 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

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