School vouchers took center stage at the final legislative cracker barrel session of 2013 at the Vigo County Public Library.

On one side, representatives Alan Morrison, R-42, and Bob Heaton, R-46, defended Indiana’s voucher system as introducing school choice for often low-income kids and parents.

On the other side, Rep. Clyde Kersey, D-43, several employees of the Vigo County School Corp. and others said vouchers harm public schools by transferring state education dollars to private or charter schools.

Vouchers were a front-burner issue at the cracker barrel because the Indiana General Assembly is currently considering a bill that would expand access to vouchers.

The bill would permit Hoosier kids access to vouchers without first attending a public school. It would also boost the size of vouchers by $100 a year over the next two years.

Indiana’s voucher program is hurting public schools across the state, said Donna Wilson, chief financial officer for the school corp. There is only one pool of money for public education in Indiana, and “the voucher money comes out of that pool,” she said.

Morrison, on the other hand, said he favors Indiana’s voucher system, one of the most expansive in the country, because it provides options for kids who may not fit neatly into public schools.

“If the best option for [a] kid is to go to a charter school, then so be it,” Morrison said. Too often the charter school debate is about what’s best for adults, not kids, he said, adding that fewer than 1 percent of Hoosier children currently use vouchers to attend charter or private schools, usually in struggling school districts.

Heaton also defended vouchers. “I think the money should follow the child,” he said.

Dan Tanoos, superintendent of the Vigo County School Corp., said he is not opposed to competition from charter and private schools, but wants to be sure all schools must play by the same rules. At present, private and charter schools have the freedom to reject applicants in ways that public schools cannot, he said. And the rules for home schooling students are very lax, Tanoos said.

Speaking of the pending legislation, Tanoos added: “How much further and more are you going to kick us?”

The cracker barrel ended with Republican Rep. Jud McMillin, a guest at the event, speaking about legislation he has put forward to re-write Indiana’s criminal code, which he said has been incrementally expanded over the years based often on emotional arguments over logical ones. His bill restores balance to the criminal code, he said.

Rep. Kersey, the only Democratic lawmaker at the session, said he supported McMillin’s bill, which is now in a House-Senate conference committee. Unfortunately, Kersey said, legislators who support the bill will likely be accused in the next election of being soft on crime.

“That will probably be used by both sides,” he said.

McMillin also discussed another bill he has put forward that would establish drug testing for people receiving welfare benefits in the state. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes that bill, saying it violates the Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable searches. McMillin said he believes the bill has been drafted in a way to pass Constitutional muster.

The 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly is expected to wrap up on April 29.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

 

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