Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Q&A: Are Indiana's School Vouchers Legal?

Indiana State Teachers Association

Nate Schnellenberger and the ISTA are currently engaged in a number of high profile lawsuits involving, among other issues, school vouchers.

The Indiana Department of Education released a report Thursday which boasted what it called the successes of the state’s new private and parochial school voucher program.

This is the latest in a series of confrontations between the IDOE and Indiana State Teachers Association, including a high profile lawsuit from the state’s largest teachers union over the legality of school vouchers. We bring you the first in a two part series of interviews. Today, we speak with ISTA President Nate Schnellenberger about the reasons his group has decided to challenge the “Choice Scholarship” program in court.

Q: Can you describe your general thoughts on the voucher program?

They’ve tried to tout the success of the new voucher program, but the fact is less than 4,000 of the 7,500 vouchers available under the new law have been used. This tells me one of two things.  Either they’ve done a really poor job of publicizing this program or there are not as many people displeased with public schools as some would like you to believe.

Q: Do you have any specific concerns about schools either receiving money or losing money as a result of the voucher program?

Virtually all of the students using vouchers are attending religious schools and most of the schools accepting vouchers are religious schools. This is why we are pursuing a lawsuit against this voucher program. The Indiana State Constitution states that tax money citizens are compelled to pay cannot be used to support the teaching of religion or to support religion.

We’ve been criticized because some people have said that we oppose school choice.  This is not true. Indiana has complete school choice within all of our public schools. There really are no boundaries in terms of where students can attend.

And we don’t oppose religious schools. If parents choose to send their children to a religious school, then the taxpayers of Indiana should not be required to support that religious school. So we really have no opposition to any religious schools — only to the requirement tax dollars that have already been budgeted to support public schools be used to support that religious school. Given the limited resources available to our public schools today, there’s really no scientific research that any voucher program improves academic achievement.

Q: The Indiana Department of Education has said that this is the largest first year voucher program in history.  How do you respond to this?

There’s no question about it. It is the largest of any state. We knew that because it is the most liberal voucher law in the United States.  Our voucher law is open to more students in terms of income level, so it’s not surprising to me that we have the most number of students who are using it. It was designed in that manner.

Q:  What are your current thoughts on the voucher programs?

This voucher program diverts much needed tax dollars from our the state’s constitutionally-guaranteed public schools and we feel that is a disservice to our more than one million students enrolled in our public schools.

Read an interview with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett in support of the voucher program.


  • Guest

    Why should a parent who sends their child to a religious school be required to pay the full amount of school taxes to support children in public school. By the interviewees own logic that parent should not have to support public schools then. Simply the voucher program provides money for that child (a significant amount less) that would be spent on them in public school. Therefore, the public school system still is maintaining the concept of making money off of children in private schools (even if they are religious).

  • jedwa

    Why should they still have to pay public education taxes? Well you have to educate yourself on how this country works. Here’s Q&A on that from my blog – essentially the same question:

    3. Since I pay the taxes I should get to choose where my child goes to school.

    Answer: This is ignoring the whole point of public education which, in my opinion, is to ensure we have an educated citizenry. If everyone in the middle and upper classes went to private schools and took the money, we wouldn’t have a well educated citizenry because the lower classes wouldn’t be able to provide enough in tax to provide it for themselves (yikes, I sound like a liberal!) I’m going to be a bit facetious here – If I pay taxes, and I’m not happy with how good our military is (BTW, I am, they are the best), then should I be able to get a voucher from the military to buy my own guns, bombs, missiles, etc?

    • Previous Poster Below

      I didn’t mean to imply that an individual who attends private school should not pay education taxes they should. However, what I wish to point out is the voucher system saves the public schools money. For example say it costs the school 24,000.00 to educate a student and the voucher only requires a payment of 7,000.00. This nets a 17,000.00 savings which can be spent on the remaining students in the public school. Therefore any financially aware person should not have a problem with the voucher system. Speration of church and state brought up by the interviewee is a mute point and I could provide an argument as to why.

      Also to your argument the voucher system is not meant to support the upper or middle class but the lower middle class or lower income who can not afford to attend private schools normally. Also I can point you in the direction of many studies that do say private schools save money for the school districts. Also isn’t competition good this could only promote better education all around.

      • jedwa

        thanks for the reply. The problem with it is that it isn’t constitutional. My Q&A is because those are arguments for vouchers and they really aren’t valid. Yes, vouchers can make money for a school system, but if it isn’t constitutional then they need to change the constitution, not waste our money on trying to break it.

        • Previous Poster Below

          Actually the constitution only states that a state must educate its citizens. It’s illegal for the federal government to educate or control education. Perhaps you should read the constitution. The Washington DC school system is illegal (since its ran by the federal government) too so should we sue the federal government over that.

          Also the argument for why the voucher system is illegal doesn’t seem to exist to me. Why exactly is it illegal again?

  • RCE

    Article VIII, section 1 of Indiana’s Constitution states that: “Knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it shall be
    the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement; and to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools,
    wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”

    It is instructive that Indiana’s Education Article has two clauses connected by the word “and,” not “or” or “therefore” or any other conjuntion but “and.” A common sense reading of the Article suggest that the first clause is clearly intended to provide the Indiana legislature with broad authority to support a wide range of educational approaches, provided these include a general and uniform system of Common Schools. It is not one or the other but both and, so long as Indiana maintains a system of common schools, which of course it does and will.

    Moreover, vouchers do NOT go to religious schools. They go to parents who make a truly private choice of the schools they want their children to attend. This is a critical distinction, and one that was central in the U.S. Supreme Courts decision upholding vouchers in Ohio, as well as in the state supreme court decisions supporting vouchers in Wisconsin and Ohio, both of which have constitutional language very similar to Indiana.

  • Mgiaquinta

    the premise that the program allows poor kids to improve their education is of nothing but a lie.First, the income limit obsessed with family size so that families like mine with give kids can be eligible with income far in excess of poverty line. Second, the student receives a voucher even when attention a lower performing school. they need to tell us how many students change schools to attend the school promoted from the pulpit on Sunday.

  • StateImpact Indiana

    Great discussion. I wanted to point out that Schnellenberger is not referring to the Article VIII of the Indiana Constitution. He’s referring to Article I Section 6

    “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

    The state has argued (as does RCE) that vouchers are given to parents- not to religious institutions. However, it could be argued that the net result is money drawn from the treasury for the benefit of religious organizations. The DOE openly admits that 98 percent of all private schools in Indiana are religious, meaning parents wanting to use the voucher have little choice but to send their children to a religious school.

    Previous Poster Below makes an interesting point. Parents with students attending private schools do not get a tax break. Could the voucher be viewed as a form of tax break?

  • Kim Fidler

    Way to go Nate! The truth about how vouchers and charters are designed to “starve out” small rural schools by forcing them to consolidation is finally coming out. We all must act to save public schools for our children in Indiana!

  • N.S. Papas

    Of Indiana’s 1.1 million school age children, 100,000 are enrolled in private schools. Caps on vouchers expire next school year. If Indiana decides to fund every private school student at even $5000
    per child per year, we’d have to cut public schools by a half BILLION dollars or raise taxes by a half BILLION dollars. These cuts or tax increases would occur even if public schools retained every student currently enrolled there. Why would we weaken instruction and enlarge class-sizes for 90% of our students to benefit 10% of our students?

    In every state where vouchers have been on the ballot, voters have said NO to raising taxes or cutting public schools to finance private school vouchers. Ninety percent of students in church-going families attend public schools. They do not want to weaken their children’s public schools.

    Our state constitution says no one shall be compelled to support a ministry without his consent. Yet that’s exactly what vouchers do. Indiana has Christian, Muslim, and Jewish schools where faith based lessons are included throughout the curriculum. Vouchers force believers in those faiths to finance religious instruction in others’ religions that they find highly objectionable. That’s exactly what our constitutoinal framers wanted to avoid.

    Our state constitution also says that the state must provide a system of common schools which are tuition free and equally open to all. Will church schools surrender enrollment preference for children of their own congregation so that the children of other taxpayers have an equal opportunity for enrollment in parochial schools?

    Private schools now can deny admission to any student who has expensive special education needs or low test scores or who can’t finance the balance of tuition costs and fees or whose parents can’t or won’t participate in school activities. Is such discrimination consistent with our constitutional mandate to be equally open to all? Studies of voucher programs over the long term in differentstates reveal that private schools have no better scores than public schools when similar kinds of students are compared.

    If I buy and operate my own car rather than use public transportation, I do not receive a tax break for saving costs to the public transportation system. In fact, I’m taxed more via gasoline taxes, excise taxes, and tolls. First we financed a public school system. Then we drained public schools of funds to start up new buildings and hire new staff in charter schools. Now the state wants to drain public schools or add more costs to taxpayers by adding private schools. It makes more sense to have
    one good system than to fracture resources among and weaken 3 systems of schools.

    Vouchers are taking us down the path to eliminate religious liberty in parochial schools and/or to drain funds for both charter and public schools – leaving everyone worse off. This is a zero sum game that no one wins.

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