Ohio Senate Bill Would Limit Cleveland's Vouchers to K-5
Fifth graders attending private and parochial schools through the Cleveland voucher program would not receive taxpayer-funded tuition payments to attend 6th grade, under a measure passed last week by the Ohio Senate.
With only two Democrats voting no, the voucher provision passed 31-2 on June 9 as a part of a larger education budget bill. It stands in contrast to an earlier vote by House lawmakers to expand the voucher program to include 6th graders in the coming school year and 7th graders the year after.
If included in the final budget, the Senate measure would affect 280 of the 3,674 students currently enrolled in the program. The students are now waiting "in a state that's even worse than limbo" to find out if they can return to their schools in the fall, said Bert Holt, the director of the voucher program.
"The parents have even paid the registration fees for the fall," Ms. Holt said. "They have gotten their books and made their reading lists. They have ordered their uniforms. What kind of a system would do this to a child?"
Lawmakers say they will likely decide which of the two versions of the voucher program they will include in the final budget within the next two weeks.
Observers say that the May 27 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court that invalidated the Cleveland voucher program contributed to the Senate's decision to limit the availability of the program to students in the grades it now serves.
The court ruled that by establishing the program through a provision in a 1995 appropriations bill, the legislature violated a state constitutional requirement that each bill address only one subject. Despite the outcome, however, voucher supporters termed the ruling a victory, because the court did not find fault with the program itself and said it did not violate federal or state prohibitions on government establishment of religion.
Instead, the court left it up to the legislature to approve the voucher program by means the court deemed legal.
Last week, the Senate opted to reauthorize the voucher program through language in the biennial education budget. Supporters argued that this met the court's test because the bill is geared solely to education programs.
On May 5, more than three weeks before the supreme court's ruling, the House passed an education budget bill that included the language extending the voucher program through the 7th grade.
In the wake of the ruling, "we said we better pull back just a little and do just a K-5 program," said Marianne White, a legislative aide to Republican Sen. Robert A. Gardner, who chairs the Senate education committee.
Even with the support of Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, and House members, observers said the fate of the 5th graders in the voucher program remained uncertain.
"There's just no way to know what will happen," said David Zanotti, the president of the Ohio Roundtable, a think tank that supports school choice. "We hope for the best."
Vol. 18, Issue 40, Page 13