Reports about a major new voucher program launched in Indiana should be getting the attention of Floridians. The new program has diverted over 3,000 students and millions of public tax dollars from cash-strapped public education into private, usually religious schools.
As a post on this page noted last week, a universal school voucher program has been long sought by Florida Republican education reformers like former Gov. Jeb Bush who tirelessly chant “choice” and “accountability.” As detailed in last week’s post, Florida has several limited but ever expanding school voucher programs. Florida’s voucher plans are virtually identical to what had previously existed in Indiana:
Until Indiana started its program, most voucher systems were limited to poor students, those in failing schools or those with special needs.
Indiana’s experience may prove to be a model for Florida lawmakers, even as soon as the next legislative session. Indiana may have the nation’s most ambitious program, but it was only one state among several taking up major voucher initiatives in the last year, evidencing a pattern that clearly indicates ALEC-sponsored legislation.
The Indiana plan provides the following:
The new voucher program takes a portion of state funding usually provided to public schools and gives it instead to families who want to send their children to private or parochial schools. It is one of the most expansive programs in the nation because it is not limited to low-income students or those in failing schools.
A family of four with a household income of less than $61,000 is eligible for a grant worth 50 percent of the local district’s per-student funding. A similar family making $41,000 or less would be eligible for a 90 percent voucher. About 60 percent of Hoosier schoolchildren qualify under the income guidelines. The amount of the grant is limited to $4,500 for grades 1 through 8, with no cap for high school.
The number of vouchers available in the first year is capped at 7,500, the second year 15,000 and no cap thereafter. No one expects anywhere near the 7,500 cap to be approached this year.
With taxpayer funds being drawn from the state’s public education budget and directly transferred to qualifying, accredited and participating private religious schools, the program became the target of a lawsuit. Indeed, one report noted that
All but six of the 242 non-public schools so far approved for the voucher program have religious affiliations.
And another reported:
Nearly 70 percent of the vouchers approved statewide are for students opting to attend Catholic schools, according to figures provided to The Associated Press by the five dioceses in Indiana. The majority are in the urban areas of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, South Bend and Gary, where many public schools have long struggled.
However, the request for an injunction stopping the program was denied.
Marion County [ed. note: that’s Marion County, Indiana!] Judge Michael Keele denied a request from a dozen plaintiffs, including members of the Indiana State Teachers Association, for a preliminary injunction to halt the program while its constitutionality is determined by the courts.
Keele said laws approved by the General Assembly are “clothed with the presumption of constitutionality,” and ruled the plaintiffs are not likely to prevail on the merits of their constitutional claims, making an injunction unwarranted…
The plaintiffs argued the voucher program undermines the state’s constitutional mandate to provide for a uniform system of common schools open to all, and violates two constitutional provisions prohibiting state support of religious institutions.
Keele said so long as the state continues to fund public schools, the Indiana Constitution does not block the Legislature from also supporting students who choose to attend private schools.
Concerning state support of religion, Keele said since the program is not a direct tax to support a specific church, the vouchers are no different from state scholarship funds awarded to college students used to pay tuition at private, religious schools.
Gigantic holes appear in the logic of Judge Keele that have direct bearing on whether the state is endorsing or supporting any religion with this program. The Indiana Court of Appeals and eventually the Indiana Supreme Court will likely hear the case. To understand why Judge Keele’s logic may actually prevail, click and read this informative editorial.
Nonetheless, you can see how important the church-state issue figures in the legality of implementing the Indiana program, and how Florida’s Amendment 7 – mentioned in the post noted earlier – figures heavily in any Florida voucher program design.
Besides the religious angle, there are a variety of other features in the law:
- The bill requires students to attend public school for one year before being eligible for vouchers, meaning current private school students could not receive a voucher.
- What isn’t clear — and the Department of Education is working on rules — is how the application process will work. For instance, will parents sign up with the state, verify their income and overall eligibility, receive a voucher and then shop for a school off a preregistered list?
- Legislators wrote the law so that private schools could maintain their current eligibility criteria. But if a number of students are eligible for the same few spots, a public random drawing must be conducted.
- The patriotism amendment was added in the Senate to ensure against anti-American teachings. It requires, for instance, schools provide a daily opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And it says eligible schools enrolling students in grades 6 through 12 must provide within two weeks of a general election five periods of class discussion concerning voting, the system of government, election laws, party structures and the responsibility of citizen participation.
The so-called “patriotism amendment” is the one that got my attention. If that isn’t a gateway to political indoctrination, I don’t know what is. I can see any progressive answer on a test getting marked wrong, can’t you?
Beware Florida! This is coming your way really soon and really fast.