Pence spoke at that rally, along with several Republican legislative leaders. The governor supports legislation that would loosen the restrictions on the state’s current voucher program, which provides an average of $4,100 in tuition payments for about 9,100 students from low-income families enrolled in private and parochial schools.
Pence backed a version of the bill that would’ve opened the program up to thousands of more students by waiving the requirement that students attend at least one year of public school before they can apply for a voucher.
The House passed a scaled-back version of the bill that allows kindergarteners and siblings of current voucher students to be eligible for a voucher without having to wait a year.
House Democrats who voted against the bill argued it was fiscally irresponsible to expand the program when it is only in its second year and while a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is awaiting a ruling from the Indiana Supreme Court.
Senate Republicans may rein in the bill for fiscal reasons. State Sen. Luke Kenley, the powerful chairman of the Senate appropriations committee has already said he opposes expanding the program until the state has a better handle on its future costs. The House Republican budget bill forecasts spending for the voucher program to grow over the next two years from the current $37 million a year to $63 million annually, with the number of students growing to 15,000 in the 2014-15 school year.
Those additional dollars would come from the $270 million that House Republicans want to restore to K-12 school funding, which was cut by almost $300 million in the past budget cycle due to the recession.
The state Supreme Court is weighing the legality of the program after hearing arguments in November over a lawsuit pressed by the Indiana State Teachers Association that virtually all of the voucher money goes to schools whose primary purpose is to promote the teachings of their affiliated churches.