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Mike Pence speaks at today's school choice rally at the Indiana Statehouse.

Mike Pence speaks at today’s school choice rally at the Indiana Statehouse.

Scott Elliott

Pence hails school choice progress, but advocates say they’re fighting for more

Gov. Mike Pence joined school choice advocates to celebrate the dramatic growth of charter schools and vouchers in Indiana over the past 15 years at a State House rally today, but he stopped short of declaring victory.

Since the early 2000s, the Indiana legislature added a slew of new school options for parents who want to consider schools for their children beyond the traditional public schools in their local school districts, passing laws that encourage charter schools and provide tuition vouchers for students to attend private schools.

“Those of you that have been a part of this movement over more then a decade … I commend you,” Pence said.

By 2020, Pence said he’d like to see 100,000 additional Indiana students attending schools that earn grades of B or better from the state — whether they are public, charter or private schools.

“I will continue to stand with policy makers and parents and teachers and educators,” he said, “to keep Indiana at the very forefront of states that are expanding choice.”

About 300 people, including charter and private school students, parents and advocates, gathered for the event, hosted by Institute for Quality Education, a school choice advocacy group.

Perhaps because school choice supporters have been overwhelming successful at pushing through voucher and charter school legislation, the rally was largely celebratory. There are not major bills aimed at school choice this year in the legislature.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, an instrumental supporter of vouchers and charter schools, cited several recent rankings that place Indiana’s charter school law as No. 1 in the U.S. The Center for Education Reform, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools each gave top marks to Indiana’s charter school laws in 2015.

“It was 12 years ago a small band of us, a couple of us, said our goal was to make Indiana the No. 1 school choice state in the nation,” Bosma said. “(Now), we have the largest, fastest growing and most comprehensive voucher program in the nation.”

When Indiana launched its voucher program in 2011, about 4,000 students enrolled. Since then, the guidelines for eligibility have expanded, and the Indiana Department of Education estimates that 32,955 students received vouchers this year. A recent poll from the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation found that 69 percent of people polled support the voucher program.

But some advocates issued a battle cry to continue expanding non-traditional options for students.

Keynote speaker Campbell Brown, a former CNN journalist and school choice advocate, said that Indiana is leading the way when it comes to giving parents school options.

“You will have to fight to keep these changes,” she said. “You have to fight to protect the progress that you’ve made and to ensure that Indiana keeps moving in the right direction.”