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Indiana school voucher expansion scaled back

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Monday, February 18, 2013 - 4:55 pm

INDIANAPOLIS — Republican lawmakers scaled back a proposal Monday that could have opened Indiana's private school voucher system to thousands of more students.

Changes approved by the House Ways and Means Committee would allow kindergarteners and some other students to be immediately eligible for the program if their families meet income limits. But the committee removed a provision that would have waived the requirement for current private school students to spend at least one year in public schools before seeking a voucher.

The state budget proposal from House Republicans includes increased funding for what is already the country's largest voucher program by about two-thirds to $63 million over the next two years.

Budget writers decided that opening up the voucher program to non-public school students would be too great an extra cost, although how much is uncertain.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said Monday the broader eligibility provision was estimated to cost between $17 million and $40 million a year, while a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency on a similar proposal last year found the annual cost could reach $115 million.

Brown said allowing children entering kindergarten to be eligible for the vouchers would have a much smaller budget impact and that his changes weren't a move against opening the program to more students.

"Right now, the decisions were made on how it fits in our overall (budget) puzzle," Brown said.

The committee voted 14-7, largely along party lines, to send the bill to the full Republican-controlled House for consideration.

House education committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, sponsored the broader expansion but said he agreed with the committee's changes.

"Making kindergarten the starting point is what we really wanted," he said.

The bill also would eliminate the requirement that siblings of current voucher students first attend a public school for a year before becoming eligible. Other changes would loosen eligibility requirements for children in military and foster families and for special-needs children.

The 2011 legislative debate over creating the voucher program ended with a compromise that public school should have a chance to first win over parents — and some legislative leaders have questioned whether making exceptions would go against that agreement.

Behning said he had backed that requirement then in order to limit the cost of the program, but said that the state's finances are now in better shape.

"I don't think the agreement was that from this time henceforth we will never change this," Behning said.

Two leading advocacy groups for private schools — the Indiana Catholic Conference and the Indiana Non-Public Education Association — both spoke in favor of the proposal Monday.

Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, questioned continued moves to increase funding for the voucher program and charter schools at what he said was the expense of traditional public schools.

"I don't think the state of Indiana has enough money to fund three separate school systems," said Goodin, the superintendent of the Crothersville school district. "Just to continue to plug away and to pull out money from certain groups to aid others, I think it is going to be very difficult."

The House Republican budget proposal forecasts spending for the voucher program to grow over the next two years from the current $37 million a year to $63 million annually. That projects the number of students in the voucher program going from about 9,100 this year to 15,000 in the 2014-2015 school year.