The Ohio legislature passed a budget bill on Thursday that would expand the number of vouchers already available to Ohio students by thousands, giving the state one of the largest K-12 voucher programs in the country.
The Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Pilot Program would establish a scholarship of up to $5,000 for as many as 14,000 public school students who attend schools that have been in “academic emergency,” the lowest of the five state ratings, for three consecutive years. The program would go into effect for the 2006-07 school year, and would apply only to students who are enrolled in public schools who want to transfer to a private secular or religious school.
The money to pay for the program would come from the base state aid that Ohio provides to individual school districts. Students in the voucher program would be required to take state achievement tests just like other Ohio public school students.
Ohio already has a voucher program for students in the Cleveland public schools. About 4,000 Cleveland students receive vouchers worth up to $2,700 to attend private schools. Under the budget, the Cleveland voucher would go up in value to as much as $3,450. The budget now goes to Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, for his signature. Mr. Taft, who has line-item veto authority over the budget, had proposed a smaller voucher expansion in his budget proposal. His original proposal was to provide vouchers worth up to $3,500 to 2,600 students in “persistently failing” schools.
If signed into law, Ohio’s voucher program would be second in size only to Florida’s, which includes state-funded vouchers for special education students, state-subsidized tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers for students in persistently failing schools for a total of about 25,000 students.
The budget passed by the Ohio House and the Senate on June 23 retreats from the House’s suggested voucher proposal, which would have created up to 18,000 vouchers for Ohio students. In addition, the House plan would have allowed students in districts that had individual schools in academic emergency to apply for the vouchers, even if that student’s individual school was meeting state standards.
Mark Rickel, a spokesman for the governor, said that various voucher provisions of the budget proposal remained under review. He said that the governor’s intention was not just to have students leave poorly performing schools, but to provide some time for schools to get off the academic emergency list.
“He wanted to hopefully realize building-level improvements,” Mr. Rickel said.
Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, said in a statement that the Ohio proposal represented “a major victory for kids.”
But Lisa Zellner, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Federation of Teachers, countered that the voucher program “ended up being much larger than we feared.”
Ms. Zellner said the voucher programs in Ohio have not worked well for students. “Does it make sense to expand the program statewide when there was no benefit to it?” she asked.