Supporters of Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program breathed a tentative sigh of relief when Gov. Ted Strickland (D) announced his proposed education budget in early February. The governor’s budget recommendations include level funding for the popular program.
The program, known as EdChoice, began providing scholarships in the 2006-07 school year to students from persistently underperforming public schools. Up to 14,000 EdChoice scholarships are available annually to eligible students.
To be eligible a student must attend or be assigned to attend a public school on Academic Watch or Academic Emergency, the lowest categories in the state’s school rating system, for two of the past three school years. Currently students from 199 low-performing public schools in 27 school districts are eligible.
This year 9,712 EdChoice scholarships are being used statewide. Almost all the participating families reside in urban areas. Although family income requirements do not determine eligibility, most participants are low-income. Participation is highest in urban districts with large numbers of failing public schools, such as Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo.
Safe for Now
Approximately one-third of Ohio’s 900 private schools currently participate in EdChoice. For children in kindergarten through eighth grade, scholarships are worth up to $4,500 apiece. High school students can receive scholarships up to $5,300.
The governor had proposed cutting the program in his 2007 budget. His 2009 budget includes significant changes to the state’s education system, but leaves EdChoice intact.
EdChoice proponents, while pleased with the program’s inclusion in the proposed budget, plan to continue building support for the program to avoid future vulnerability, by highlighting its consistent growth and successes.
“While enjoying tremendous popularity from parents, EdChoice has continued to be a controversial topic politically,” said Chad L. Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, a state-based advocacy group. “The governor’s decision to recommend its continuation in the budget is an important first step toward continuing this important option for parents of Ohio students assigned to attend the state’s consistently lowest-performing public schools.”
Rabbi A. D. Motzen, director of Agudath Israel’s Ohio region, reports Jewish families are optimistic for this year.
“We are very encouraged by the fact that the governor saw that the program is working, families are happy and he, therefore, kept it in his budget,” Motzen said, adding he continues to meet with state legislators to educate them about the program.
“The Senate leadership has made it very clear that there will be no funding reduction,” Motzen said. “I am very hopeful that the House has also seen the benefits of the program and will support its continuation.”
Participating parents have been writing letters, contacting elected officials, and testifying at legislative committee hearings. Organizations such as the Ohio chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) are encouraging parents to tell legislators of their EdChoice experiences and the difference the program has made for their child and their family.
“It is our hope that when elected officials hear the voices of their constituents they will be compelled to support this wonderful opportunity and leave it as it is or work to better the current program,” said Tracie Craft, BAEO’s Ohio director.
“I take every opportunity possible to speak with legislators on behalf of parents to share success stories from parents and concerns from those who would like to be included in the program,” Craft said.
‘Lifeline’ for Children
State Sen. Jon Husted (R-Kettering) helped create the program while serving in the state House. He remains steadfast in his support. Husted has “seen generations of children trapped in failing schools with no one throwing them a lifeline. I felt they deserved choices for a better education and that failing public schools should be put on notice that they must improve.
“The significant number of families and students who turn up at the Capitol steps to rally for the program sends a strong message on who wants the program and why it is important to them,” Husted said. “The participating families, while not necessarily savvy about political lobbying, are powerful advocates for the program as they share their compelling stories with legislators.”
Under Ohio law, legislators must approve the budget before July 1.
Virginia Gentles ([email protected]) writes from Virginia.