INDIANAPOLIS -- Supporters of Indiana's charter schools and private school vouchers packed a Statehouse corridor with hundreds of children from those schools for a rally Monday as they back expansion of those programs.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP House and Senate leaders all told the crowd of perhaps a couple thousand children and adults that the charter school and voucher programs had helped spur greater competition for improvement in the state's education system.
The "Ed Reform Rocks" rally happened as the Legislature is considering a proposal to expand Indiana's 2-year-old voucher system that already is the nation's largest. A bill already approved by the Indiana House this year would allow kindergartners and some other children to be eligible without first spending a year in public schools.
Pence called the rally a "celebration" of Indiana's "school choice" initiatives that now have some 30,000 students in charter schools and about 9,000 students receiving vouchers.
"If we give parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach, education in Indiana will continue to rock," Pence told the crowd.
The voucher bill now pending in the state Senate makes several exemptions from the requirement included in the 2011 law that all students spend at least one year in public schools before becoming eligible for a voucher. It eliminates that requirement for siblings of current voucher students, for children in military and foster families and for children with special needs.
Susan Andrews, who attended the rally with her daughter's 3rd grade class from St. Mary's Catholic school in Rushville, said while her family isn't in the voucher program she believed it helped give parents more options in the rural county about 40 miles east of Indianapolis.
"I just think it's wonderful that we have that choice in our county," Andrews said.
Democratic legislators have questioned expanding the voucher eligibility, saying the state is stretching itself thin to fund three school systems -- traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools through the voucher program.
Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, said last year's election of Democrat Glenda Ritz, a voucher opponent, as state school superintendent was a sign that Republicans were pushing too soon for a bigger voucher program.
"They were passed under the guise of pilot projects, so let's see if they're working," said Goodin, superintendent of the Crothersville school district. "One year doesn't get that done."
Former Indiana Pacers star Jalen Rose told the rally crowd about the charter school he helped open in his hometown of Detroit to give troubled high school students another chance. Rose said Indiana has been on the forefront of change in education and that he wanted to steal some of its ideas.
"I'm now going to take this back to the state of Michigan and stand on the table to get vouchers for our students," Rose said.
Paris Witherspoon of Portage attended the rally with students from Charter School of the Dunes in Gary, which two of her children now attend.
Witherspoon said she believed the additional school options were helping children in the Gary area where many of the public schools have for years been troubled by low test scores and graduation rates.
"Why are we turning out a generation of kids that we're just letting go through?" she said. "It doesn't prepare them for the real world."