Daniels signs voucher plan into law

    INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels on Thursday signed into law a plan giving Indiana the nation’s most sweeping private school voucher program, and work is now beginning to make the plan a reality for thousands of Indiana parents.
    Lawmakers, supporters and children from several private schools joined Daniels at a Statehouse ceremony where he signed the voucher bill and another proposal aimed at expanding charter schools, which are public schools free of many state regulations. Daniels and other bill supporters say the proposals will give parents more choices for educating their children.
    “Every child is precious,” Daniels told the crowd. “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.”
    The voucher program uses taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private and religious schools. The plan is based on a sliding income scale, with families of four making more than $60,000 qualifying for some level of scholarship if they switch from public to private schools.
    Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said the state Department of Education is working on the logistics of the program now. He hopes to have an online application process running in plenty of time for parents to make decisions about their children’s schooling during the next academic year.
    Bennett envisions a system in which private schools that want to participate will register in some form with the department, and parents who are interested in vouchers can contact the department to see how much money they might qualify for, Bennett said. The system isn’t in place yet, but officials estimate about 60 percent of Indiana families with children could qualify for some amount of voucher, though the program is limited by capacity at private schools and a cap on the number of participants in the first two years.
    Bennett said the department would give parents plenty of public notice once it has worked out the details.
    “We’re going to be vigilant about communicating this,” Bennett said. “We will have it in time for school to start.”
    Parents are waiting.
    Indianapolis father Randy Duke, whose daughter Miranda has been on waiting lists for years to get into charter schools, said he was happy that parents in his situation could have more options this fall.
    “It’s a monumental step in the right direction,” he said.
    Susan Leon, who has three children attending St. Philip Neri School in Indianapolis, she and her husband made the choice to move their children from public to private school because they like the values and respect taught there. Though her family won’t qualify for vouchers because they currently attend private school, she said other parents deserve choices.
    “I’m glad there is an option,” she said.
    Legislative leaders and education advocates said the bill signing marked a historic day, and that the nation is watching Indiana as it embarks on a new level of school choice.
    “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.”
    Critics say vouchers blur the line between separation of church and state and spread scarce education money too thin. The proposal was a key reason behind a five-week boycott of the Legislature by House Democrats, who returned to the Statehouse from Illinois only after winning concessions on the voucher bill and other proposals.
    Republicans around the country are pushing to expand voucher programs after the GOP made big gains in the 2010 elections. But Indiana’s proposal differs from existing programs.
    Other systems across the country are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools.
    Indiana’s program would be open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools. Indiana’s program will be limited to just 7,500 students for the first year and 15,000 in the second, a fraction of the state’s about 1 million students. But within three years, there will be no limit on the number of children who could enroll.
    The education proposals enacted into law Thursday are a major part of Daniels’ aggressive education agenda. The GOP-ruled General Assembly approved all of the governor’s proposals, handing him big legislative victories as he considers whether to run for president.
    The vouchers themselves do not carry any additional expense for the state because they mainly transfer money between schools. The actual value of the vouchers is based on a sliding scale and is less than the amount of tax money a public school would have received for that student. In the case of students in grades 1 through 8, the maximum value would be $4,500.
    But the bill includes a tax deduction of $1,000 for each child in a private school or home school. That will translate into a revenue loss of more than $3 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.