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Education reform plans approved

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By Suzannah Couch

Two critical pieces of Gov. Mitch Daniels' education reform plan received final legislative approval Wednesday.

Bills that would expand Indiana's number of charter schools and launch a private school voucher program passed the House of Representatives. They now go to Daniels' desk, where he is expected to sign them into law.

"Our children will thrive in a system that provides quality options to all students regardless of their ZIP code or how much money is in the family bank account," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said in a statement following the bills' passage.

House Bill 1002 allows for private colleges and an Indiana Charter School Board to authorize charter schools. The members of the board will be appointed by Daniels, the Indiana Department of Education and state lawmakers.

Currently, existing school districts, the mayor of Indianapolis and public universities can authorize charter schools. This expansion of authorization power would ease the creation process for charter schools.

Under changes made by the state Senate, if a traditional public school wishes to become a charter school, 51 percent of parents must sign a petition stating they are in favor. The school must also be in the lowest two categories on the Department of Education scale for two or more years, and the school board must vote affirmatively.

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said the charter school bill gives more families options as they pick a school for their children to attend.

Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Indianapolis) said the bill is damaging public schools by funneling more money away from them.

"Every dollar that flows to charter schools are going to flow away from the public school system," Pierce said.

The bill passed 61 to 37.

Families of four who earn $60,000 a year are eligible for a smaller voucher under the House Bill 1003. The vouchers will have a cap on the amount of students eligible for the first two years.

Those who receive free or reduced lunch are able to receive a voucher, which is often $4,500, under the bill. The voucher will pay for the students' tuition at a private school if they wish to use it for that purpose.

Families with children in non-public schools or accredited non-public schools will receive a tax deduction of $1,000 per child. The tax deduction is intended to be used for tuition, fees and book rentals among other school related costs.

Rep. Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis) said the tax deduction portion of the bill was created to recognize parents who made sacrifices to put their children in non-public schools.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, (D-Indianapolis) said the bill discriminates against public school parents by not giving them tax deductions and that it drains money from public schools by allowing vouchers to be used at non-public institutions.

The bill would also require letter grades to be assigned to private schools that accept vouchers based on ISTEP scores as part of the Department of Education grading scale. This is the same grading process public schools receive now.

Rep. Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) said the bill would help children by giving them choices, empowering their families.

The bill passed 55-43.

The above is one of an ongoing series of reports from the Indiana Statehouse by students at the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism.

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