Ohio lawmakers have voted to bankroll the Cleveland voucher program for the next two years, despite a recent court ruling that using public money to send students to religious schools is unconstitutional and continuing resistance from the state and local teachers’ unions.
Gov. George V. Voinovich, who has championed vouchers as a centerpiece of his education platform, wanted the 2,000-student program to take on 3,100 more children this fall. The legislature decided last month that enrollment should grow, but in light of the state appeals court ruling, not as quickly as the Republican governor had hoped.
If it survives in the courts, the program would aid 1,000 new kindergartners this fall and allow 3rd grade graduates to continue using vouchers in the 4th grade.
That means 3,000 children, all chosen by lottery, would receive vouchers worth as much as $2,500. Their family incomes average less than $7,000.
Last year, the 72,000-student district became the first in the nation to implement a large-scale voucher program allowing poor children to attend religious schools--in addition to secular private schools--at taxpayer expense. Already, the governor and other supporters are declaring the program a success.
“There were question marks about how children from an urban setting who had not experienced a more regimented environment with firm expectations would be able to adjust,” said Bert L. Holt, the program’s administrator. " The children have proven that they are capable, and now that they know what’s expected of them, I’m sure there will be an acceleration in learning.”
Other districts and education analysts are watching the Cleveland voucher program, and one in Milwaukee that does not include religious schools, to see whether they succeed in raising achievement among disadvantaged children.
But critics, particularly the Cleveland Teachers Union, say vouchers sap resources and attention from the city’s public schools, which were taken over by the state two years ago. The legislature last week approved a bill that would transfer control of the district to Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, and Gov. Voinovich has promised to sign it. (See related story, page 1.)
Legal Hurdles Remain
The debate over vouchers is also being hashed out in the courts. On May 1, an Ohio appeals court said the $5.25 million program violates federal and state bans against government aid to religious institutions, noting that most of the participating students attended religious schools. (See Education Week, May 7, 1997.)
The ruling did not deter Gov. Voinovich. One month later, he asked the court to allow the program to continue while the Ohio Supreme Court reviews the ruling. And in June, he and Cleveland school officials announced with great fanfare that reading and math test scores rose at two of the more than 50 private schools that enroll children using vouchers.
Some education experts dismissed the findings since the time span between the tests was only seven months and because the two schools are new institutions founded by a voucher ally.
Test results from the other voucher schools will not be available until the fall.
The Cleveland Teachers Union and a statewide group called Citizens Against Vouchers remain staunchly opposed to the program.
“Of course children will do better when they don’t have to deal with the conditions in the public schools,” said Meryl T. Johnson, a spokeswoman for the 5,000-member union. “In the private schools there is mandatory parent involvement, removal of disruptive students, and smaller classes. Giving money for some students to go to these schools is unconstitutional and unfair.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week