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Indiana’s Voucher Program Sees Support, Faces Lawsuit

Two sides debated Indiana's voucher program in a preliminary hearing Thursday.

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Those who oppose the voucher say it unfairly favors religious educations. Supporters say it provides choice.

Indiana’s voucher program is one of the broadest in the country. It gives money to low and middle-income parents to send their children to non-public schools, religious or otherwise.

In July, a group backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association and the National Education Association filed a lawsuit in Marion County Court, aiming to halt the law.

Teresa Meredith, ISTA vice president and one of the plaintiffs in the case, says the program violates the Indiana Constitution because it takes money directly from the public school system and gives it to private schools.

“It is going to be a really, really tough challenge for school corporations to stay afloat financially going into the next couple of years,” Meredith says.

Other voucher programs across the country, notably in Milwaukee and Cleveland, have survived legal challenges.

Meredith, who is also a public school teacher, says she believes this suit will be successful because its focus is different than other voucher suits.

“Our voucher suit does not challenge the U.S. Constitution,” she says. “It challenges the state constitution and the way that the state constitution calls for this access to public education.”

Proponents of the voucher program do not see it as a hindrance to public education. Indianapolis Representative Bob Behning, the principal author of the law, says he knew it would likely be challenged in court.

Behning believes Indiana’s history of providing money to private schools at the higher education level will help convince the courts to uphold the law.

“We felt that if it would be challenged, there was historical perspective that would show that it had already been done and not been found to be unconstitutional and sustain any type of lawsuit,” he says.

The state will not be alone in defending the voucher program. A few weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the Institute for Justice, a national libertarian and civil rights law firm based in Virginia, filed a motion to join the suit on behalf of two Indianapolis parents who plan on using the voucher program in the fall.

The Institute for Justice has helped defend every major voucher program in the country in the last 20 years, including Milwaukee’s and Cleveland’s.

Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Bert Gall says Indiana’s voucher system shares an important similarity with Milwaukee and Cleveland – they are all programs of true individual choice.

“No money flows to any private school, whether it be religious or non-religious, but for the genuine and independent choices of parents,” Gall says.

A major point of contention has been whether state money is being used to fund religious education.

Heather Coffy is one of the two parents represented by the Institute for Justice. Her oldest son is going into high school and she needs the voucher to make sending him to private school possible.

Though her son will attend a Catholic school, Coffy says choosing a private school is not about religion for her, it is about getting away from the public school system.

“I am worried about the generation that is being left behind for students that are not meeting standards,” Coffy says.

Coffy sent her son to two different public school systems in townships around Indianapolis and attended Indianapolis public schools herself. She says none of those public schools fit her children’s needs.

The other parent in the suit, Monica Poindexter, has enrolled her daughter in private school since kindergarten. She says her seventh grader has excelled, and the voucher program will ensure she gets to stay in private school.

“It’s been a struggle financially, but it’s a struggle that I was willing to make for her because she has done so well,” Poindexter says. “I just don’t want to change that environment for her.”

Those challenging the voucher program have been accused of trying to deny parents greater school choice.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger says his organization does not oppose parents sending their students to private schools if they feel that is the best choice for them.  But he says the voucher program goes too far.

“We certainly respect their right to send them to a private school,” Schnellenberger says, “but we do not think there should be a tax subsidy, in essence, provided for them to do that.”

The two sides were in court Thursday for a preliminary injunction hearing.

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