Ohio Creates One of the Nation’s Largest Voucher Programs

Published September 1, 2005

In a year already marked by several legislative victories for the school choice movement nationwide, Ohio is poised to become the state with the largest voucher program in the country by next fall.

Gov. Robert Taft (R) recently signed into law a new program providing scholarships for students in failing schools; the legislation also expands two existing choice programs in the state beginning with the 2006-07 school year.

“The new program for children in failing schools will be the largest statewide school choice program in the nation,” noted Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice. “The creation of that program plus the expansion of two others illustrates that states with the greatest experience with school choice are the most likely to expand it.”

Ohio’s choice programs have occupied the national spotlight for several years. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland Scholarship Program in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, freeing Ohio’s parents to use state-provided vouchers to send their children to a variety of private schools, including those with religious orientations. The most recent legislation builds on that foundation.

The most significant component of the law establishes a new statewide scholarship program targeting students in public schools that have been in academic emergency for three consecutive years. According to the July 13 edition of Education Week, 117 of Ohio’s 3,917 public schools have been in academic emergency for two years. The number of children who will qualify for the scholarship will be determined once 2004-05 numbers are analyzed, with low-income students given priority.

New Scholarships Created

Beginning in fiscal year 2007, up to 14,000 students will be awarded scholarships ranging from $4,250 to $5,000 to attend private schools.

The new law prevents Cleveland students from using the new statewide scholarships, because Cleveland has had its own citywide voucher program since the 1996-97 school year. However, the law augments both the Cleveland voucher program and the state’s choice program for autistic students.

Cleveland’s voucher program, available only to K-10 students until now, will be immediately opened to 11th- and 12th-grade students. In fiscal year 2007, maximum scholarship amounts will be increased from $3,000 to $3,450.

The Autism Scholarship Program, formerly a pilot, is made permanent, and scholarships will increase from $15,000 to $20,000 apiece. Additionally, the new law removes the cap on the number of autistic children who can enroll.

“The new amounts are more realistic and should encourage new schools to open and expand choices for Cleveland schoolchildren,” Bolick said.

Divided Over Choice

To help measure the program’s effectiveness, students receiving vouchers will take the same standardized tests as those in Ohio’s public schools.

Although school choice advocates are pleased by Ohio’s growing programs, not everyone in the Buckeye State welcomes the new law. Ohio Federation of Teachers Communications Director Lisa Zellner said the state’s choice programs have yet to produce their promised results.

“The new legislation expanded a type of program that has proved unsuccessful,” she said, noting that by some measures public school students’ standardized test scores are improving faster than the scores of students using vouchers to attend private schools. “We are confused about why legislators would invest public dollars into programs that have not raised student achievement.”

Other research, such as Indiana University education professor Kim Metcalf’s nine-year study of the Cleveland Scholarship Program, indicates that though Ohio’s charter schools are lagging behind traditional public schools, voucher students are performing at least as well as, if not significantly better than, their public school peers.

Choices Are Growing

Bolick said choices are growing in states such as Ohio, Arizona, Florida, and Utah precisely because they do work–making 2005 one of the strongest years on record for school choice legislation.

“In 2006, the number of children in targeted school choice programs nationwide will reach six digits for the first time, representing a 40 percent increase in the number of children in targeted school choice programs and an even bigger increase in the amount of public funding,” Bolick said.

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer based in New Mexico.