The Ohio Legislature is poised to accomplish what voucher opponents could not do for the past four years: Destroy the hopes of poor families who have embraced the promise of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.
A bill pending in the Ohio Senate claims to restore the voucher program, as required by a recent state supreme court ruling. But in fact the bill radically alters the original intent of the plan and cuts participation off at grade five, rather than continuing support through grade eight.
When the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on May 27 that the Cleveland voucher program was sound on constitutional grounds but invalid on technical grounds, all the court required to correct the technical error was for state lawmakers to reauthorize the program by June 30. Governor Robert Taft voiced support for the reinstatement, Attorney General Betty Montgomery ruled that reauthorization could be achieved by amending a state education budget bill, and legislators prepared to take action on her recommendation.
But when the $17 billion state education budget passed out of the Senate Finance and Financial Institutions Committee, lawmakers had significantly changed one of their key commitments to the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.
In 1995, the legislature had agreed to make the program available to participating students through eighth grade, until they completed their elementary education. The 1999 reauthorization makes students ineligible after grade five.
“The Ohio Senate is playing politics with a program that is changing lives for the better in Cleveland,” charged Ohio Roundtable President David Zanotti, saying that it was wrong for children to be thrown out of the program before they had a chance to graduate from grade school. “The Senate should restore the school choice plan to its original intentions.”
Zanotti predicted that the radically altered program would diminish support among parents and limit participation. Moreover, changing the program’s structure would mean any research done to measure its impact would be inconsistent from this point on.
According to a Harvard University study, 67 percent of parents with students in Cleveland’s voucher program are “very satisfied” with the academic quality of their children’s private schools. Only 30 percent of Cleveland public school parents expressed this level of satisfaction.
“Parents don’t like being toyed with by politicians,” said Zanotti. “They don’t like their children being used as experiments.”