Indiana's Republican leadership is pushing ahead with a proposal that would be the nation's broadest use of school vouchers, allowing even middle-class families to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools.
Unlike other systems that are limited to lower-income households, children with special needs or those in failing schools, this one would be open to a much larger pool of students, including those whose parents earn up to $60,000 a year. And within three years, there would be no limit on the number of children who could enroll.
"The goal is to make sure as many kids as possible get choice," said Robert Enlow, president of the Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based advocacy group pushing for school vouchers.
Students receiving vouchers make up less than 1 percent of school enrollment nationwide, but vouchers have been one of the top priorities among conservatives. Indiana's Republican-controlled Legislature hopes to deliver soon on its long-sought overhaul of public education now that Democratic lawmakers who fled the state have returned.
State House Democrats stayed in Illinois for five weeks to deprive the chamber of a quorum because they did not have enough votes to stop the voucher proposal and others they oppose. They came back Monday, claiming victory after winning some concessions from the GOP on vouchers and other legislation.
The vouchers are government-issued certificates that can be applied to private tuition, essentially allowing parents to use some of the tax dollars that would normally go to public schools to send their children to other institutions.
The vouchers do not carry any additional expense for the state because they mainly transfer money between schools. But public-school advocates and many Democrats have long opposed large-scale voucher programs, saying they could siphon tax money from local districts.
Because the GOP controls both chambers and the governor's office, some form of the legislation is likely to pass.
The actual value of the vouchers would be based on a sliding scale and would be less than the amount of tax money a public school would have received for that student.
Voucher critics have watched the debate with alarm.
"It's a blitzkrieg," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis. "They're just like drunk with power. This is what we're seeing everywhere. They need to be stopped. Nobody campaigned on 'Let's rob the public schools and give all the money to parochial schools.' "
But some parents are demanding more options beyond public school.
Heather Coffy, a single mother of three in Indianapolis, said her oldest son was struggling in public school when she applied for a private school-choice scholarship. The money she received helped put her three children in a Catholic school, where she says they are thriving.
"I will do anything possible to give them the education I know they deserve," Coffy said.