Indianapolis — 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.”
The Indiana 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 vouchers.
The Milwaukee 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 enrolled.
Indiana 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.
The Indiana 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.