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Indiana Supreme Court upholds broad school voucher law

| Tuesday, March 26, 2013, 6:42 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the broadest school voucher program in the nation in a ruling that supporters say could set a precedent as other states look to build or expand programs that allot public money for students to attend private schools.

The state's highest court unanimously upheld a 2011 law providing vouchers for low- and middle-income families and cleared the way for an expansion being debated in the Indiana Statehouse. But more importantly, it could settle the case law for other states where voucher programs have legal challenges, supporters contend.

“I think it will be incredibly influential,” said Bert Gall, senior attorney for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, who helped defend the Indiana law.

The Indiana voucher program, passed by the Legislature in 2011, is the most sweeping in the nation and the biggest test yet of the conservative Republican idea that giving families choice creates a greater incentive for public schools to improve. Unlike voucher programs in other states, which are limited to low-income families and failing school districts, Indiana's program is more broadly available. Parents with household incomes of as much as nearly $64,000 for a family of four are eligible.

Jeff Reed, spokesman for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said 530,000 Indiana students qualify for vouchers, although only 9,000 receive them.

Public school officials fear the eventual loss of thousands of students, especially those from the middle class, along with the state money that comes with them.

The U.S. Supreme Court kicked the fight over school vouchers to the states in a split 2002 ruling. That left supporters and opponents to fight over whether school voucher laws violated similar clauses in state constitutions.

Indiana joins states like Louisiana and Wisconsin, where voucher or voucher-style laws have been upheld. But Arizona and Florida's courts have ruled against vouchers, and the issue remains to be resolved in other states.

Supporters say the ruling could sway courts in other states because the Indiana Constitution contains a clause copied by many states in the mid-1800s in a bid to bar public aid for Catholic schools. The so-called “Blaine Amendment” was meant at the time to keep public money flowing to Protestant-dominated public schools.

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