INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana will create the nation's broadest private school voucher system and enact other sweeping education changes, making the state a showcase of conservative ideas just as Gov. Mitch Daniels nears an announcement on whether he will make a 2012 presidential run.
The Republican-controlled state Legislature handed Daniels a huge victory Wednesday when the House voted 55-43 to give final approval to a bill creating the voucher program that would allow 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, Indiana's voucher program will be open to a much larger pool of students, including those already in excellent schools. Families would have to meet certain income limits to qualify, with families of four making up to about $60,000 a year getting some type of scholarship.
Daniels' agenda mirrors ideas being pushed nationwide by Republicans empowered by 2010 election victories. But Daniels has successfully led Indiana — a conservative state not known for going out on a limb — into uncharted education territory.
"Other states are going to be taking notice about how far Indiana's going," said Robert Enlow, president of the Foundation for Educational Choice.
The successes couldn't come at a better time for the two-term governor, who has said he'll announce his intentions on a possible White House run sometime after the legislative session ends Friday.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said Daniels is thinking of what's best for kids, not his own political ambitions, when advocating the education overhaul.
"I'm sure he's not worried about a presidential run," Bosma said.
Opponents say Daniels' agenda will hurt public schools by taking money and students away. The voucher proposal was a key reason behind a five-week boycott earlier this session by House Democrats, who returned to the state after winning concessions on the voucher bill and other legislation.
"He says that his motivation is to improve student achievement, but so many of these reform measures are not aimed at improving student achievement," said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the state's largest teachers union. "He wouldn't be siphoning public money from public schools if he was concerned about those students who remain at public schools."
Lawmakers have also approved other parts of the governor's agenda, including his proposal aimed at expanding charter schools, merit pay for teachers and restrictions on teacher collective bargaining. Daniels has already signed the restrictions on collective bargaining into law and is expected to sign the other education bills in coming days.