INDIANAPOLIS – A judge upheld Indiana's school voucher law on Friday, rejecting opponents' arguments that the largest such program in the nation unconstitutionally uses public money to support religion.
Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele said the School Choice Scholarship program doesn't violate the state constitution because the state isn't directly funding parochial schools. Instead, it gives scholarship vouchers to parents, who can choose where to use them. That was essentially the argument made by the program's supporters.
About 4,000 children are enrolled in Indiana's school voucher program, making it the nation's biggest.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger said opponents would keep fighting the law. The union had backed the lawsuit brought by teachers and religious leaders.
"The ruling from the judge does not shake our confidence and it will be appealed," he told The Associated Press.
But officials with the Institute for Justice, which represented two parents who wanted to use the vouchers, said they believed the ruling would stand. Attorney Bert Gall said similar laws in Wisconsin and Ohio had been upheld, and the U.S. Supreme Court had also affirmed the constitutionality of vouchers.
"Today's ruling is a resounding win for Indiana parents and students, and it is a major defeat for school choice opponents," Gall said in a news release.
The ruling also dismissed arguments that the program unconstitutionally took funds from public schools and sent the money to private schools. Keele wrote that the Indiana Constitution clearly authorized "educational options outside of the public school system."
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose office defended the state program, praised the ruling.
"The court agreed that the choice scholarship program does not violate anyone's rights, and we are pleased with the thoughtful analysis," Zoeller said in a statement.
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said the court ruling "validated" the school voucher program.
"The court clearly understood the goal that so many House Republicans fought so hard for, which is to give families that want and need school choice when it comes to their child's education," he said in a statement.
Lawmakers approved the law during the 2011 session. Gov. Mitch Daniels signed it last May and it took effect at the start of the school year. ISTA and opponents sued to block the law from taking effect, but Keele declined in August, saying it was likely to be upheld — which he did Friday.
Associated Press Writer Carrie Schedler contributed to this report.