02-19-2017  8:49 am      •     

(CNN) -- In a ruling that could reverberate nationwide, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the state's voucher program, which gives poor and middle class families public funds to help pay for private school tuition, including religious schools.

Indiana has the broadest school voucher program available to a range of incomes, critics say, and could set a precedent as other states seek ways to expand such programs.

Supporters say it gives families without financial means more options on where to educate their children.

However, opponents of the Indiana program had sued to block it, describing it as unconstitutional and saying it takes money from public schools.

Teresa Meredith, the vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and one of the plaintiffs, said she was "very disappointed in the ruling."

Unanimous ruling

As many as 9,000 students statewide are part of voucher program, and more than 80% use the funds to go to religious schools, according to Meredith.

But in its unanimous 5-0 ruling, the Supreme Court said that was not an issue.

It said it did not matter that funds had been directed to religious schools as long as the state was not directly funding the education. The tuition, the court said, was being funded by the parents who chose to pay it with their vouchers.

"Whether the Indiana program is wise educational or public policy is not a consideration," Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote. The public funds "do not directly benefit religious schools but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children."

Expanding the program

Unlike other states, Indiana's program is considered especially extensive because the vouchers are not limited to low-income students in failing schools.

A family of four with an annual household income of $64,000 is eligible for vouchers worth up to $4,500 per child, according to the program.

Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence has pushed to expand the program.

"I welcome the unanimous decision by the Indiana Supreme Court to uphold our school choice program," Pence said. "I've long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school regardless of their income."

The state Senate education committee will hear a House bill Wednesday that calls for expanding the voucher program to include children with special needs and those in military families if their household income is as high as $85,000 for a family of four.

Meredith calls the timing "interesting," saying she feels the schools are getting hit twice. She believes the Supreme Court ruling will sway lawmakers who were undecided on the issue before Tuesday's ruling.

She is concerned about the future of the public school system, and says other districts nationwide that have voucher programs should watch where the dollars are going and sound the alarm quickly when they see the negative fiscal impact as a result of students transferring to private schools.

A nationwide debate

Private school tuition vouchers are a hot political issue nationwide.

They began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1990, according to the National Education Association, and were followed by two other voucher plans in Cleveland, Ohio, and Florida.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a challenge to the voucher program in Cleveland using similar logic as Tuesday's ruling in Indiana. Courts in Wisconsin and Arizona have also upheld voucher-type laws, according to the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group.

A voucher case is in appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court and another one is awaiting ruling at the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Glenda Ritz is the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction. She is not a fan of the voucher system, but in her role in the school system, she was named as one of the defendants.

"As state superintendent, I will follow the court's ruling and faithfully administer Indiana's voucher program," she said. "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."

 

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