Ohio acquired what could become one of the largest school voucher programs in the country when Gov. Bob Taft recently signed into law a new program that significantly expands on the state-run choice plan in place in Cleveland for the past decade.
The new Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Pilot Program will establish state-financed scholarships of up to $5,000 each for as many as 14,000 students who attend public schools that have been in “academic emergency” for three consecutive years. Academic emergency is the lowest of the state’s five accountability ratings.
Cleveland students, about 4,000 of whom already take part in the separate state-funded program there, are not eligible for the new program.
The new program was approved as part of the state’s fiscal 2006 budget, which also made changes in the Cleveland program and included provisions aimed at slowing the growth of charter schools in the state.
Since 1995, Ohio has run a program that provides Cleveland students with tuition vouchers for use at religious or secular private schools. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the program against a legal challenge in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris ruling in 2002, holding that it did not unconstitutionally blend church and state even though many participants attend religious schools.
Sen. Joy Padgett, who chairs the Senate education committee and supports the new program, said no state legislators would allow their children to stay in a public school that was in academic emergency for three years. “I thought, let’s do this for the kids,” said Ms. Padgett, a Republican. At the same, she said, “we are definitely on a mission to make sure that no matter what choice a parent makes for their child, the accountability will be the same.”
Program’s Size a Compromise
But Lisa Zellner, a spokeswoman for the strongly anti-voucher Ohio Federation of Teachers, said the Cleveland voucher program has not worked well for students.
“Does it make sense to expand the program statewide when there was no benefit to it?” she said, adding that the new program “ended up being much larger than we feared.”
Gov. Taft, a Republican, had recommended a smaller voucher expansion, with vouchers of up to $3,500 for as many as 2,600 students, in the budget proposal he had submitted to the legislature earlier this year.
The budget the governor signed on June 30 reflects a compromise between the House, which wanted to allow for 18,000 vouchers, and the Senate, which wanted 10,000. (“Ohio Poised to Expand Vouchers Beyond Cleveland Choice Program,” April 27, 2005)
The new program is slated to take effect in the 2006-07 school year. It will apply only to students enrolled in public schools who want to transfer to private schools.
Currently, 117 public schools, mostly in the state’s large urban districts, have been in academic emergency for two school years in a row. The number of students eligible for the new program will be determined by how many of those schools remain in that category when results for the 2004-05 school year are analyzed.
The money to pay for the program will come from the base state aid that Ohio provides to individual school districts. Students in the voucher program will be required to take the same state achievement tests taken by students in Ohio public schools.
Poor students will take precedence when it comes to awarding the vouchers, as is the case with the Cleveland program.
Meanwhile, the maximum value of those Cleveland vouchers will rise from $3,000 to $3,450, under the new law, and 11th and 12th graders will be able to participate for the first time.
Charter Law Changed
Also included in the budget bill were amendments to the state’s charter school law. The new law limits the number of new charter schools that can open over the next two years to 60—half of them sponsored by districts and the other 30 by education-oriented nonprofit organizations and Ohio’s public colleges and universities.
However, charter school operators that meet their performance standards will be granted waivers to open more schools. A 2003 law had capped the number of charter schools at 250.
That law withdrew the state board of education’s power to grant charters. Ohio has 249 of the publicly financed but largely independent schools, serving 62,000 students.
Steve Burigana, the chief operations officer for the Ohio Department of Education, said he expects the state to reach the cap for nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions this fall. More than 100 charter school operators—some with contracts, others seeking them—are hoping to open new schools.
Because of the cap, the legislation requires the department to hold a lottery in a month to determine which schools can open for the 2005-06 school year. Previously, any charter school operator with a sponsor could start holding classes as long as there were fewer than 250 charter schools in the state. Under the new law, the maximum number of schools that a charter school sponsor can authorize is 50. No cap existed previously for charter school sponsors.
Ohio’s charter schools also will face tougher sanctions. Charter schools will be closed if they fail to make adequate progress for three consecutive years, along with other academic indicators yet to be outlined by the department.
Another provision of the law forbids new online charter schools to open until the state establishes standards and regulations for those schools. Ohio now has 47 online charter schools.