By Susan Guyett and Mary Wisniewski
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Some 3,778 Indiana students have signed up to receive private school tuition money under a new and controversial state-wide voucher program, with a week to go before a September 16 deadline.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said he was pleased with the turnout in a program that is capped in the first year to 7,500 students, and may include 15,000 next year before caps are later removed.
The most expansive school voucher program in the country was signed into law by Governor Mitch Daniels in May, and allows low and middle-income families to use taxpayer dollars to help send their children to private schools.
Other voucher programs, which are popular among political conservatives, are limited to poor students, those with special needs or those in failing schools.
"I want any child whose family believes that the child could be better served to have that choice," Bennett said.
Courts have struck down state-wide voucher programs in Arizona, Florida and Colorado. Indiana's largest teachers' union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, has filed a lawsuit opposing the program.
The suit agues that the program violates the state constitution by giving public money to religious schools, and violates a provision that obligates the state to create a general and uniform system of common schools.
But a judge refused last month to issue an injunction halting the program. The state's second largest teacher's union, the Indiana Federation of Teachers, is planning its own lawsuit.
Federation President Rick Muir said the program takes money from already financially hurting public schools. "The worst is yet to come," Muir said.
The majority of vouchers have gone to religious schools, according to John West, an attorney for the ISTA suit.
Under the plan, a family of four with an income of up to $41,348 can get a voucher of up to $4,500 for grades 1-8. The same family making up to $61,000 a year could get 50 percent of the tuition support received by their public school district, typically around $3,000.
Monica Poindexter said that without the voucher program, she didn't think she could keep her 12-year-old daughter Mia at an Indianapolis Catholic school because of the financial sacrifice, and she's grateful for the help.
"Clearly this school environment is working for her," Poindexter said.
Greg Perkins, president of Cardinal Ritter High School and St. Michael-St. Gabriel Elementary in Indianapolis, said the elementary school had 56 students using vouchers, with 28 new students coming from public schools.
Muir said vouchers, combined with rules allowing children in urban schools to apply for open suburban spots if their parents provide transportation, will allow private schools and suburban public schools to cherry-pick the best students and leave those with the most challenges behind.
Bennett said 85 percent of voucher students so far qualified for free and reduced-price lunch programs, which he said undercut the cherry-picking argument.
"I believe a little bit of competition in the public school system is good, and we're actually seeing some pretty substantial operational changes in the public school districts as a response to this," Bennett said.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Susan Guyett; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)