INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the nation's broadest school voucher program in a ruling supporters say could set a national precedent as other states look to build or expand programs that use public money to allow students to attend private schools.
The state's highest court unanimously upheld a 2011 law providing vouchers for low- and middle-income families and cleared the way for an expansion being debated in the Indiana Statehouse. But more importantly, it could settle the case law for other states where voucher programs face legal challenges, supporters contend.
"I think it will be incredibly influential," said Bert Gall, senior attorney for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, who helped defend the Indiana law.
The Indiana voucher program, passed by the Legislature in 2011, is the most sweeping in the nation and the biggest test yet of the conservative Republican idea that giving families choice creates a greater incentive for public schools to improve. Unlike voucher programs in other states, which are limited to poor families and failing school districts, the Indiana program is open to a much broader range of people, including parents with household incomes of up to nearly $64,000 for a family of four.
Jeff Reed, spokesman for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said 530,000 Indiana students qualify for vouchers, although only 9,000 currently receive them. Public school officials fear the eventual loss of thousands of students, especially those from the middle class, along with the state money that comes with them.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the nation's largest in terms of actual enrollment. That program, enacted in 1990, had 24,027 participants this school year, Reed said.
The U.S. Supreme Court kicked the fight over school vouchers to the states in a split 2002 ruling, in which conservative members led by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said vouchers do not violate the U.S. Constitution's clause separating church and state. That left supporters and opponents to fight over whether school voucher laws violated similar clauses in state constitutions.