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Indiana's expansive school voucher program upheld: A model for others?

Indiana's school voucher program, which extends to middle-income families, does not 'directly benefit religious schools,' the state Supreme Court chief justice writes.

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Traditional public school supporters rally in the North Atrium of the Indiana Statehouse on March 19. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the law creating the nation's broadest school voucher program tonight, clearing the way for a possible expansion.

Charlie Nye / The Indianapolis Star / AP

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The Indiana Supreme Court Tuesday unanimously upheld the state’s expansive school voucher program, which extends to middle-income families the opportunity to send their children to private schools with public assistance.

A coalition of teachers, parents, and union officials had challenged the voucher program as unconstitutional, saying it uses public money to promote religious education.

But Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote that whether or not the program is “wise educational or public policy,” it is constitutional because the state funds "do not directly benefit religious schools but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children."

The ruling is considered a precedent for other states that say parents should have greater choice in where their children attend school.

“This ruling is a model, or a roadmap, for how to structure a [school voucher law] law that is the most expansive in the nation,” says Terry Spradlin, associate director of education policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington.

The ruling resulted from a 2011 lawsuit that challenged the constitutional merit of redirecting tax dollars from local public school districts to pay partial private school tuition. The Indiana State Teachers Association suggested the program is a backhanded method of funding religious activity, considering that the majority of private schools in Indiana are parochial. It also said it violated the state constitution that ensures uniform public school access.

“There are not many good private school choices outside religiously-affiliated schools in this program. Most parochial schools around the nation are struggling to survive, so parochial school advocates see this [voucher program] as a way to extend their livelihood,” Mr. Spradlin says.

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