Ohio Governor Proposes Striking Choice from Budget

Published June 1, 2007

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) wants 3,000 students to go back to failing schools. In unveiling his two-year, $52.9 billion budget this March, he called for the elimination of the statewide Educational Choice Scholarship program (EdChoice)–a state-sponsored voucher system.

Strickland, the first Democrat elected to the Ohio governor’s office in 16 years, called vouchers “undemocratic” in an Associated Press interview shortly after release of his budget.

The thought of vouchers being undemocratic doesn’t sit well with reformers.

“I think the definition of democracy is being able to voice your opinion, choose your leaders, and choose your future,” said Lori Drummer, director of state issues for the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC. “One of the most democratic choices a family can make is choosing a school that provides for the needs of their child.”

Vulnerable Innovation

Strickland’s office gave several reasons for dumping EdChoice.

“The governor believes the answer to addressing failing public schools is not to take students out of those schools, but to focus efforts on improving the education system for all students,” said Keith Bailey, Strickland’s spokesperson.

“The state’s voucher system is in its first year and new enough that [eliminating] it wouldn’t be disruptive to the relatively few students that are using it. There is really no evidence that the vouchers are working,” Bailey continued.

Popular Program

In the program’s first year, an estimated 2,914 children were awarded scholarships to attend 263 participating private schools–the highest first-year participation numbers of any such program in the country. As of January 2007, the number of participating schools had risen to more than 290.

T.J. Wallace, the EdChoice coordinator for School Choice Ohio, a state-based advocacy group, said the program’s popularity with parents is a good indication the state is doing something right in having it.

“We have the largest take-up of any program in the country. Even with the program being threatened, new people are calling everyday,” Wallace said. “The real question is what will happen to the kids currently in the program if EdChoice ends?”

The EdChoice program allows up to 14,000 students in underperforming schools to receive grants for tuition at the school of their choice. Elementary school students receive $4,250 each or full tuition, whichever is less. High school students receive $5,000 each or full tuition.

No family income requirements determine eligibility. Once the 14,000 cap is reached, new students are prioritized according to household income. April 20 was the deadline for 2007-08 applications.

Looming Deadline

Ohio law requires legislators to approve the budget before July 1. Melanie Elsey, legislative director at the Ohio Roundtable, an education and policy research organization, says EdChoice is likely safe for now.

“I believe the House of Representatives intends to protect EdChoice,” Elsey said. “If they remove the governor’s elimination wording, there will be no line item for EdChoice in the budget. EdChoice children are counted along with all the public school students. So, if there is no line item to veto, the program is probably safe. But we don’t know if the Senate will hold the House changes.”

House Bill 79, passed in December, changed the formula for counting EdChoice students to include them with public school students–essentially eliminating the line item for EdChoice in the state budget. Strickland’s new budget called for revising the existing law governing EdChoice to make it a separate line item–an option House Speaker Jon Husted (R-Kettering) plans to oppose.

“Every parent should have the option for school choice,” said Karen Tabor, Husted’s spokesperson. “He feels very strongly about that and would like to see the program saved. One of the options is to revert back to current law.”

Fierce Debate

House Finance Committee debate was heated this spring. Wallace attended the hearings held in mid-April and said parents were coming in droves to support EdChoice.

“What I’m really enjoying is the democratic process,” said Wallace. “A ninth-grade girl from Youngstown asked all the adults in the room if it was going to be possible to see the governor. She said, ‘I want him to tell me to my face that I don’t deserve what I’m getting in my new school.'”

Whatever his plans for EdChoice, Strickland did not intend to eliminate Cleveland’s citywide voucher system, which is also funded by the state. The city’s program enrolls 6,000 low-income students and was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002.

At press time, the House Finance subcommittee was making revisions, readying the 2,000-page budget bill for a floor vote by June 1. If passed, the Senate Finance subcommittee will hold hearings on it later this year. The Ohio Senate is generally thought to be more liberal than the House.

Aaron Atwood ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.