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Courier-Journal | Poll: Hoosiers support Mitch Daniels' school vouchers idea

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lesley Stedman Weidenbener

Louisville Courier-Journal

INDIANAPOLIS – Advocates of school choice released a poll on the eve of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ seventh State of the State address that found widespread support among Hoosier voters for private school vouchers, which the Republican plans to endorse in Tuesday’s speech.

But a majority of respondents said the vouchers should be available to all students, not just those from lower-income families as the governor will propose.

Education will make up the biggest section in the State of the State address, Daniels said Monday. He called support for school choice encouraging and said he wants Indiana to offer students the “widest choice in America.”

Daniels will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday from the House chamber. The address will be available live online at www.in.gov. Several public television and radio stations and some for-profit radio stations are expected to carry the speech live as well.

The governor has said repeatedly that parents want more options so they can choose the best school for their children – whether that be in a neighboring public school district, at a public charter school or at a religious or non-religious private school. The vouchers plan, which would let students use public money for private school tuition, is a key part of Daniels’ education agenda.

But the poll – which surveyed 3,400 registered voters in November – is some of the first public evidence that Hoosiers endorse the idea as well. Two-thirds of respondents in the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, said they would support vouchters.

Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice, which funded the survey, said the poll shows a strong majority of respondents support more options for students and their families – at all income levels.

The poll found:

*While two-thirds of respondents said they would support vouchers, only 38 percent said they believed those vouchers should be available entirely based on financial need.

* Two-thirds of respondents said they support charter schools, which are public schools that are freed from many state regulations. Indiana has dozens of charter schools, but Daniels is seeking to expand their availability.

*More than 40 percent of respondents said they would choose a private school “to obtain the best education” for their children, compared to 38 percent who would choose public schools, 10 percent charter schools and 7 percent homeschooling.

The Indiana House and Senate are expected to take up the charter and voucher issues during the 2011 session, which got under way last week, and the proposals are expected to find support among Republicans, who now control both chambers.

“This session brings the best opportunity for education reform in a generation,” said Luke Messer, a former state lawmaker who is executive director of School Choice Indiana. “This data shows that Hoosier families are open to reforms that include much broader options.”

But the ideas face questions among many lawmakers. Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Crothersville, is a superintendent who serves on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. Goodin said he’s open to a debate about vouchers, but only if private schools that take public money are willing to undergo many of the same restrictions and responsibilities as public schools.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, Earline Rogers of Gary, said she supports charter schools and is open to discussion about vouchers. But she said the timing is bad because Indiana has recently cut funding for public schools and can’t afford to divert any of those dollars to private schools.

“I would not at this point in time – because of lack of dollars – be inclined to support vouchers,” Rogers said.

But even those who may not support vouchers found things in the poll they like.

The newly created Indiana Democrats for Education Reform said the poll “confirms the importance of maintaining a strong network of charter schools and other public school options,” said Larry Grau, a member of the group’s executive committee and president of the Pike Township Schools Board in Marion County.

“Our focus remains on finding ways to ensure a more fair, equitable and efficient distribution of tax dollars within the public school system,” Grau said.

Braun Research, which conducted the survey for the Foundation for Educational Choice, over-sampled several areas, including Floyd County, to provide some geographic detail to the results.

The poll found that in Floyd County, 52 percent of voters believe that Indiana’s K-12 education system has “gotten off on the wrong track.” More than 40 percent of Floyd County respondents said they’d pick a public school as the best option for their child, while 39 percent said they’d pick a private school, 9 percent a charter school and 7 percent homeschooling.

Also in Floyd County, 70 percent of respondents said they favor both charter schools and vouchers, but only 20 percent said the vouchers should be available based only on financial need.

Daniels said Monday that he is not that moved by poll numbers and finds that providing vouchers for lower-income families to be “a matter of justice.”

“At some point, up the income scale, the choice is there,” Daniels said. “People can live where they want to live and choose a non-governmental school if they want.”

Reporter Lesley Stedman Weidenbener can be reached at (317) 444-2780.

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