Indiana Supreme Court upholds nation's broadest school voucher program

File photo of an IPS classroom. Critics of the voucher program argue that it will drain funding from public schools while allowing privately-run (and in some cases, for-profit) schools to cherry pick the best students.

The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the nation's broadest school voucher program, clearing the way for its expansion.

Critics had argued that the program primarily benefited religious institutions that run private schools.

But the program's supporters say parents can send their children to any school they want, whether it's public or private, religious or not, and the Supreme Court agreed with that Tuesday. In a 5-0 decision, the justices said the program does not violate the state constitution.

Republican Rep. Robert Behning of Indianapolis says he was always confident that the voucher program would be found constitutional but that he was excited by the court's unanimous ruling released Tuesday.

The Republican-dominated Legislature is now considering a bill expanding the voucher program to make some low-income children immediately eligible without first attending public school.

Read the court's opinion here.

The Meredith v. Pence case has been closely watched because its voucher program is open to middle-class families, while most state voucher programs are limited to low-income families or those in failing schools. More than 500,000 Indiana students qualify for vouchers.

Also, lawmakers have introduced a bill to expand the program to kindergarten.

"I welcome the Indiana Supreme Court's decision to uphold Indiana's school choice program. I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income. Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has unanimously upheld this important program, we must continue to find ways to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families," said Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) in a statement.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz issued the following statement:

"While I have great respect for the court, I am disappointed in today's decision. 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 Statehouse."

Earlier this year, representatives in the Indiana House of Representatives voted 57-36 largely along party lines to approve an expansion of the school voucher program.

The bill makes several exemptions from the requirement included in the 2011 law that all students spend at least one year in public schools before becoming eligible for a voucher. It eliminates that requirement for siblings of current voucher students and for children in military and foster families and for children with special needs.

Democrats oppose the expansion and say the program hasn't been in place long enough to evaluate its effectiveness.

However, Indiana Democrats for Education Reform state director Larry Grau issued this statement:

"This decision effectively ends the legal debate about vouchers in Indiana. Now it's time to continue the conversation about creating high-quality schools and educational opportunities for all Hoosier students. That means working with parents and communities across Indiana to develop sustainable school environments where educators are empowered to promote student success."

Indiana State Teachers Association Vice President Teresa Meredith says she still believes the state should be investing in public schools and making those the best they can be.

The voucher law upheld unanimously Tuesday gives low- and middle-income students public money to attend private schools. More than 9,000 students are participating this year.

The teachers union sued over the law and said it harmed public schools by diverting money intended for them to the voucher program.