Local News Politics

An Indiana judge is scheduled to hear arguments tomorrow  in a suit challenging the state’s new school voucher program.

The program was created by the Republican-led 2011 General Assembly and allows parents who meet income guidelines and are unhappy with their public schools to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools.

Critics say the program runs counter to the Indiana Constitution’s guarantee of a “uniform system of common schools”

On a recent afternoon in front of the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library, Sherry Pfund explained why she wants to use the voucher program for her granddaughter, McKenzie.

“Her father is a single parent, and you know, he’s struggling. And he wants her to have a very good education and this is a wonderful opportunity,” she said.

McKenzie transferred this year from a nearby public school to St. Mary’s Catholic Academy, where she just started third grade, and Pfund has applied for a state voucher to help cover tuition.

“You know, there’s a lot of things that the public schools are not offering anymore, and if we can get it, she deserves it, the kids deserve to have that kind of education.”

McKenzie’s family is among more than a thousand across Indiana to seek vouchers during the program’s first year. About 200 private schools are participating—nearly half of them religion-based institutions.

Supporters say the program offers low and middle income families access to good schools they otherwise could not afford to consider. Students can receive up to $4,500 annually toward private school tuition

But others are calling the program unconstitutional and bad educational policy.

“Our opposition comes along the line of certainly separation of church and state issues,” said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which supports a lawsuit filed in July by twelve individuals seeking to block the program.

“But even more than that they didn’t provide any additional funding for the voucher program.  They simply said as students leave the public schools for private or religious schools, their allotment of money goes with them.  That money had already been budgeted into public schools, so our administrations in public schools had figured on that money,” he said.

“I think that statement is a gut reaction that is made from those who aren’t necessarily fully informed about the program,” counters Monique Christensen, an outreach coordinator for the group Schools Choice Indiana, which has been helping families apply for vouchers.

She points out that the value of a voucher is not the same amount as the state spends on a particular public school student, but can consume up to 90 percent of it.

“We’re very confident that the constitutionality of the voucher program is sound, and we’re not concerned at all about the program being halted or delayed,” she said.

A Marion County Superior Court judge will be the first to rule whether Indiana’s vouchers weaken public schools or whether public funds are being unconstitutionally funneled to religious institutions.

Indiana University law professor Gerard Magliocca says it’s difficult to predict how the process will play out. He says various state courts have come down on both sides of the issue over the years.

There are more than a dozen other voucher or similar programs operating in other states.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that vouchers do not violate church and state separation because parents, not the government, decide where the tuition money is spent.

Magliocca says a lot of questions could be answered in Indiana by just seeing how the program works.

“But of course that’s not what the people filing the litigation want to do. They don’t want to wait around, five years let’s say and have a bunch of data and then say now we can go in and make certain claims about what this program’s doing. They want to shut it down now,” he said.

The new program allows for 7,500  vouchers this year and 15,000 next year, with no limit after that. Those who apply after the start of school this year can have them apply retroactively.

In New Albany, Sherry Pfund says if she’s not approved or the program is struck down, she’ll look for another way to keep granddaughter McKenzie at St. Mary’s Academy.

“I will try, yeah, hopefully we can keep her (there)….cause they’re a wonderful school.”

School voucher initiatives are also currently being challenged in Colorado and Florida.

Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation."