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Ohio Lawmakers Reinstate Voucher Program

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Students attending private schools through the Cleveland voucher program should be able to start the new school year seamlessly, thanks to state lawmakers' resuscitation of the program just weeks after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

Signing a two-year, $17.17 billion education budget on June 29, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, apparently ensured that all 3,700 students enrolled in the voucher program could return to private or parochial schools in the fall.

A provision in an earlier version of the education budget would have limited the program to students in grades K-5--a plan that, had it been included in the final budget, would have left 280 students without vouchers to attend the 6th grade.

Mr. Taft "thinks we need to continue the experiment and evaluate it," said Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the governor. "He sees it as an experiment, but one that's worthwhile. He doesn't think it should have been completely dissolved on a technicality."

That "technicality" is what turned the state supreme court against the voucher plan. On May 27, the court found that lawmakers ignored legislative procedures mandated by the state constitution when they created the state-financed voucher program through a provision in the 1995 state budget rather than through separate legislation on the plan. ("Ohio Court Issues Mixed Verdict on Voucher Program," June 2, 1999.)

Opponents Rallying

Late last month, legislators opted to include language reinstating the voucher program in the education budget. Because the program was reinstated through a budget package geared specifically to education, rather than one covering all state functions, voucher supporters say it now passes constitutional muster. They also call the court ruling a substantive victory because the justices rejected arguments that the program violated federal and state prohibitions on government support for religion.

Despite the reinstatement of the program, however, two schools created to receive students with vouchers shut down last month. School leaders say they will be reorganized as charter schools.

Meanwhile, organizations that oppose vouchers say they are plotting their next move.

Public school advocates could pursue several different legal avenues in their continuing fight against the Cleveland program, said Elliot Mincberg, the legal director for the Washington-based People for the American Way Foundation.

They may argue that the legislature's response still failed to meet the "single subject" guidelines laid out in the recent state court decision, he said. Or, he added, they may appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Ohio court was wrong to find that the Cleveland program did not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on a government establishment of religion.

Either way, "I would think something will be filed within the next month," Mr. Mincberg said. "We were extremely disappointed by the state supreme court's analysis of the federal church-state issue. Some people may do a state claim, while others do a federal claim."

Teacher Controversy

Adding to the continued debate over publicly financed vouchers, The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland reported earlier this month that one of the schools currently receiving state vouchers employs a number of unlicensed teachers, including one convicted murderer. The school, called the Islamic Academy School of Arts and Sciences, is one of five schools in the voucher program that have have not yet been officially approved, or "chartered," by the state.

"There is no oversight of these schools," said Ronald Marec, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, a state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "If this story had come out at the time vouchers were being debated in the legislature, we may have had different results."

Assistant State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven M. Puckett said that if the Islamic School of Arts and Sciences has not completed its application for a state charter by the end of the summer, it will no longer be eligible to receive the state vouchers. The other four unchartered schools in the 59-school program have 12 months to complete the charter application process.

State guidelines ensure that those schools that receive such charters meet minimum requirements for teacher licensing and building safety, Mr. Puckett said. That process is in no way related to public charter schools, which are distinct from the private schools that accept vouchers.

In addition, Mr. Puckett said, he has decided not to allow any new private or parochial schools into the voucher program unless they are approved by the state.

"It won't happen again," Mr. Puckett said of the situation with the Islamic School. "It's unfortunate because, by and large, these schools are chartered and they are following strict guidelines."

Islamic School officials could not be reached for comment last week.

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