The Herald Bulletin

May 5, 2011

Governor signs sweeping voucher bill into law

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mitch Daniels signed two more pieces of his aggressive education reform agenda, praising his legislative allies for pushing through what he described as years of resistance to change.

In a Statehouse ceremony attended by more than 100 schoolchildren Thursday, Daniels signed into law House Enrolled Act 1003, permitting state funds be used for private-school tuition through a voucher program; and House Enrolled Act 1002, which opens the door to more charter schools, which are publicly funded and independent of their local school districts.

The bills were two of 93 pieces of legislation delivered to the governor earlier this week for his signature. He’s already signed more than 80 other bills that passed through the Indiana General Assembly before the 2011 session ended near midnight on April 29.

At Thursday’s bill-signing ceremony, the Republican governor said it was a Democratic legislator who first floated the idea more than a decade ago about giving families more choices for where to send their children to school. But until this past legislative session, the idea seemed out of reach.

“If we’ve learned anything in Indiana, we’ve learned change can happen, but change is hard. Change always brings uncertainty,” Daniels said.

Daniels said the voucher and charter school bills — both of which were opposed by most Democratic lawmakers — will open up opportunities that had been closed to children whose families had few resources.

“We say today, that every child is precious. Every child deserves an equal chance to be all they can be. Regardless of race, regardless of income, every child and every parent deserves an equal chance,” Daniels said.

Opponents of his reform measures haven’t seen it that way. At the end of the legislative session last week, Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, called the session “a complete disaster.”

In a statement issued to the media, Bauer said the “greatest tragedy” of the session would be the harm done to students at traditional schools that will cut back on teachers and services because of less state education dollars coming their way.

One area of agreement, though, is that the bills signed by Daniels on Thursday mark a departure from K-12 education policy of the past. “Things have changed,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. “Indiana is heading in a brand-new direction and we are not looking back.”

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said the state Department of Education is working on the logistics of how to put the voucher program into place by this fall. The new law allows parents who meet certain income and other guidelines to tap into state dollars to help pay tuition at parochial and private schools. It’s based on a sliding income scale; a family of four earning less than $41,000 a year is entitled to a $4,500 voucher for a student in grades one through eight and $4,964 for a high school student. Families of four that earn between $41,000 and $61,000 can receive up to $2,758 per student in any grade. The voucher bill law also includes a tax deduction of $1,000 for each child currently enrolled in a private school or home school.

The vouchers are capped at 7,500 for the first year, and 15,000 for the second year. The cap is lifted in the third year.

The new charter school law expands the number of universities and colleges in the state that are eligible to sponsor a charter school; it also increases funding for online virtual charter schools and allows charter schools to take over unused buildings owned by a public school district.

Daniels has already signed legislation that limits teachers’ collective bargaining agreements to wages and wage-related benefits; and the day after the legislative session ended, he signed a teacher merit-pay bill into law that links teacher pay to student achievement.

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com