INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday
upheld the law creating the nation's broadest school voucher program,
clearing the way for a possible expansion.
In a 5-0 vote,
the justices rejected claims that the law primarily benefited religious
institutions that run private schools and accepted arguments that it gave
families choice and allowed parents to determine where the money went.
The court said
the law did not violate the state constitution's guarantee of religious
freedom or a ban on the use of state funds for religious institutions. It
noted that while the Indiana Constitution does not allow direct spending
on religious institutions, it doesn't prohibit them from receiving
indirect government services, "such as fire and police protection,
municipal water and sewage service, sidewalks and streets."
case has received national attention because the program has wide
eligibility. Middle-class families are allowed to participate in Indiana,
while in most states, such programs are limited to low-income families or
those in failing schools. Jeff Reed, spokesman for the Friedman Foundation
for Educational Choice, said 530,000 Indiana students qualify for
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 Indiana program has 9,000 students actually
lawmakers have been looking this year to expand their program further,
introducing a bill to waive a requirement that students attend at least
one year of public school before becoming eligible for a voucher.
Kindergarteners, siblings of current voucher students and some others
would become immediately eligible.
State Teachers Association had filed suit over the program, saying it
drained money from public schools. Its attorney, John West, told the court
in November that virtually all of the voucher money goes to schools whose
primary purpose is to promote the teachings of their affiliated churches.
Meredith, the main plaintiff in the lawsuit and vice president of the
Indiana State Teachers Association, called the ruling a setback for public
"I still very
much believe that public schools are where most of our society is educated
and we need to be investing and making those the best they can be," she
told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "The vast majority of
students will be robbed so that a group of students can get religious
education on taxpayer dollars," she added.
General Thomas Fisher, defending the law, told the court in November that
parents were free to send their children to any school they wished, public
or private, religious or not.
Supreme Court agreed with that, saying in a 22-page opinion written by
Chief Justice Brent Dickson that the program primarily benefited parents,
not schools, because it gave parents choice in their children's education.
rejected school voucher opponents' claims that the state constitution
requires a public school system, saying lawmakers have broad discretion in
how children are educated.
and means of fulfilling this duty is thus delegated to the sound
legislative discretion of the General Assembly, and . . . it is not for
the judiciary to evaluate the prudence of the chosen policy," he wrote.
programs have strong support from conservative Republicans, who say they
offer families more choices and will boost education by giving public
schools greater incentive to improve. Critics contend the vouchers could
cripple public schools by diverting desperately needed funds.
Superintendent Glenda Ritz joined the lawsuit while campaigning last year,
but she removed her name from the list of plaintiffs shortly after winning
office. She has walked a delicate line in the Statehouse since then,
saying she opposes that law but is sworn to uphold it.
"While I have
great respect for the court, I am disappointed in today's decision," Ritz
said in a statement. "As State Superintendent, I will follow the court's
ruling and faithfully administer Indiana's voucher program. However, I
personally believe that public dollars should go to public schools, and I
encourage Hoosiers to send that message to their representatives in the
There is still
some question about how popular the vouchers are in Indiana. Voters in
November replaced former Republican Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett,
long the state's most visible supporter of vouchers, with Ritz, a Democrat
who opposing the measure. But voters also awarded a supermajority to House
Republicans, who have pushed for a sweeping expansion of vouchers this
The bill is
awaiting action in the state Senate, where there have been concerns about
its cost and whether the Legislature should start making exceptions to the
2011 compromise that then-Gov. Mitch Daniels touted as giving public
schools a chance to win over students and parents.
Education Chairman Bob Behning, a lead sponsor of the 2011 voucher law,
said the court ruling eliminates some arguments against expansion.
today's decision is a real victory for students," said Behning,
R-Indianapolis. "There's no judicial problem in front of them now and any
questions on whether the vouchers can go forward."