Indiana panel backs private school voucher bill

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Kevin Rader/Eyewitness News

Indianapolis - A contentious proposal to use taxpayer money to help Indiana parents send their children to private schools has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The Republican-controlled House Education Committee voted 8-5 along party lines Wednesday to advance the bill after hearing more than nine hours of comments about the idea over two days. The voucher bill is a priority for Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, and the bill now moves to the full GOP-led House.

Four hours of public testimony on vouchers Tuesday was followed by over four more hours of testimony Wednesday.

"Public funds should not be used to benefit private and religious schools. Public funds belong in public schools," said Kelly Dyer, parent.

"Level the playing field. Encourage competition. Is this not one of the many things that has made the Unites States the best nation in the world? What are we afraid of?" said Jeremy Cowin, Liberty Christian School.

It was estimated that the average price of a Catholic education in Indiana is $4,000 for elementary and $7,000 for high school. Under the governor's proposal, low-income parents whose children qualify for free or reduced price lunches would get up to 90% of what it cost the state to educate that child in a public school, for private school tuition. That is capped at $4,500 for elementary school with no cap in place for high school.

"The quality of our children's education should not be determined by the quality of our parents' home or the zip code in which they reside," said Robert Enlow, Foundation for Educational Choice.

While the bill could make private school a possibility for some, it will not help those students already enrolled in private schools. The bill will only apply to children currently enrolled in public school for at least two semesters or children already receiving education tax credits.

"Public tax dollars are not intended to send children to private or charter schools. It is not the government's responsibility to fund private education," said Debbie Patterson, parent.

"I will tell you today that House Bill 1003 is not a silver bullet that is going to fix everything there is wrong with Indiana's education system but it could be a silver bullet for a family because we passed this bill," said Luke Messer, School Choice Indiana Network.

With that, the committee voted 8-5 to pass the measure. The bill is now headed to the full House for debate.