Gov. Bob Taft’s proposal to offer private school vouchers to Ohio students in districts beyond just Cleveland included a few caveats: The new vouchers would be targeted to students in specific schools that had failed state reading and math tests for three consecutive years.
Moreover, the recipients of the tuition aid would have to take the same standardized tests as students in Ohio public schools. And the number of students who could get one of the $3,500 vouchers would be capped at about 2,600. The program would be financed by $9 million in state money.
The state House of Representatives, however, decided to take off the brakes when it developed and approved its own ambitious voucher proposal.
Now, as the Senate has its turn to weigh in, Ohio is poised to take one of the biggest steps toward expanding school choice during a legislative season that has seen voucher proposals in other states gain early momentum, only to be dashed by political opposition.
On April 12, the Ohio House approved a budget bill that would provide up to 18,000 students vouchers to pay for tuition at secular or religious private schools. The value of the vouchers would be $4,000 for an elementary school student, $4,500 for a middle school student, and $5,000 for a high school student.
The money to pay for the vouchers would be deducted from the basic state aid provided to the recipients’ public schools.
And the House proposal isn’t targeted just at schools not meeting state standards. Students who attend any school in a district that has the state designation “academic watch” or “academic emergency”—even if the student’s own school is performing well—would be eligible to participate in the proposed program, called the Ohio Choice Scholarship Program.
During the 2003-04 school year, 38 districts were on academic watch or academic emergency, including some of the state’s largest districts, such as Akron, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton.
Students in low-performing charter schools would also be eligible for the vouchers under the House bill.
The House proposal would go into effect at the beginning of the 2006-07 school year. It was approved this month along with other state funding measures on a 53-46 vote. A handful of lawmakers from both parties crossed partisan lines on the vote.
Speaker of the House Jon Husted, a staunch proponent of the voucher program, said in an interview last week that Ohio has invested money and effort in improving its public schools. However, “we recognize that not all children learn the same,” added Mr. Husted, a Republican. “We feel the affected children and families have waited long enough.”
Differences Within GOP
The House proposal now moves to the Senate, which likely will modify the bill. Any differences will be worked out in a conference committee and then sent to Gov. Taft for his signature by June 30.
Though the number of new vouchers and their value are still up for debate, it is likely that Ohio will end this legislative session with some kind of expansion of its 8-year-old commitment to vouchers, some observers say.
Currently, some 4,000 students in Cleveland receive vouchers worth up to $2,700 to attend secular or religious private schools. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that program in 2002.
“It would be my guess there would be some expansion of the voucher program in Ohio,” said Barbara C. Shaner, the legislative-affairs director for the Ohio Association of School Business Officials. Her organization is against any expansion of vouchers.
“We don’t have the numbers, politically, to vote against it,” said Sen. Teresa Fedor, a Democrat representing Toledo and the ranking minority member of the Senate education committee. The Senate has 22 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
But the Republican governor has expressed concerns about the House plan.
“The concern is it’s too broad,” said his spokesman, Mark Rickel. By contrast, Gov. Taft’s proposal, which was included in his fiscal 2006 budget package, is intended “to offer students and their parents choice. At the same time, it’s also promoting building-level improvements,” Mr. Rickel added.
Ms. Shaner said that the governor, the House speaker, and Senate President Bill Harris have a close working relationship, and the proposal for 18,000 vouchers favored by Speaker Husted could represent a break in those ranks.
The final voucher proposal could be more in line with what Gov. Taft originally proposed, she suggested.
Education groups opposed to vouchers are gearing up for a fight.
“Even if you think this is valid, [the House plan] seems not very well targeted,” said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “The real tragedy is we’re not even debating how to improve public education.”